Trap may await Obama

Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) managers appear convinced that if they can just get Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) to agree to a series of “town hall meetings,” at which both candidates will field questions from an audience, their candidate will do better than if he is forced to deliver his message via set-piece speeches. McCain has already participated in hundreds of such meetings this year and is comfortable with the more relaxed format. What’s more, he can’t really compete with the oratorically gifted Obama in the more traditional formal presentations one might expect to dominate the campaign.

They may well be right. McCain’s speeches tend to read better than they sound. In fact, McCain’s spin team has been unleashed after virtually every major speech he’s delivered thus far in the campaign to focus reporters and others on what the man had to say rather than on his delivery. Obama’s managers, on the other hand, seem to want to do just the opposite: to get people to pay attention to their man’s performance, as opposed to the substance of his remarks.

In a sense, this contrast mirrors real differences between the candidates. McCain is relatively comfortable down in the weeds discussing the substance of what he might do as president, while Obama is running a more thematic campaign but has yet to demonstrate an ability to handle substance in any truly in-depth way. He appeals to the emotion and, indeed, the hopes of his audience, while his GOP opponent directs his appeal to the voters’ heads rather than their hearts.

What is surprising is that Obama seems ready to rise to the bait and meet McCain on the battlefield most feel will give the Arizonan an edge. Obama’s people argue that the young senator has a short learning curve, will do well in any format and relishes the chance to appear side by side with the shorter, elderly and more stilted McCain. They may be right, of course, but their overconfidence could just as easily lead Obama into a trap.

Every candidate has strengths and weaknesses, and those who don’t appreciate this simple truth are liable to get themselves into more trouble than they can handle. Successful campaigns do everything they can to maximize their own candidate’s strengths while spotlighting the relative weaknesses of their opponent.

To their credit, McCain’s managers seem to grasp this — in part, perhaps, because a number of them suffered through Bob Dole’s 1996 campaign against Bill Clinton. That campaign was a disaster, in large measure because rather than accentuate their nominee’s strengths, his managers decided to remake him. The results were ruinous.

I remember a lunch midway through that campaign with the late Bob Squier. Bob was one of the most gifted media consultants the Democrats ever produced, and a good friend. He had just come from filming Dole in his Senate office as part of a tribute to former Senate Leader George Mitchell. Squier said he hoped Dole’s folks didn’t see or at least wouldn’t be able to capture the Dole he saw on film because, as he put it, “if they do, Dole will prove an incredibly formidable candidate.”

He needn’t have worried. They were too busy trying to turn Dole into someone else to even begin to understand his strengths.

Something similar almost sank Ronald Reagan during his campaign against President Gerald Ford back in 1976. Reagan manager John Sears and his media consultant convinced themselves that Reagan was too smooth and that this would remind voters of his acting background, which might, in turn, convince many of them to reject him for just that reason. Sears decided that the candidate might prove more appealing if he appeared less gifted as a communicator.

I’m not making this up. In retrospect, the reasoning may sound a bit goofy, but it resulted in a series of grainy television ads that were purposely less than professional in appearance. Reagan certainly didn’t look all that smooth in the ads, but he didn’t come across as very effective either. The ads were eventually shelved, Reagan was allowed to be Reagan and the campaign almost succeeded.

McCain’s managers obviously hope they aren’t going to have to remake their candidate and are essentially daring Obama to play the game on his court. If they’re lucky, the Democrat and his advisers will take the bait. And if that happens, the young man from Illinois could find himself in a world of trouble.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com.