AARP has taken Barack Obama, John McCain and Hillary Clinton at their word. The three presidential candidates have expressed interest in holding unmoderated joint forums for the general election campaign. AARP has offered to sponsor the events—no moderator, no questions from the press, just the candidates, a stage, microphones and an audience of voters.
The candidates’ responses to AARP’s specific offer were, well, less than specific. Their camps neither jumped at the offer nor slammed the door.
• “Senator Obama has talked about holding joint town hall meetings,” says Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor. “I think I would be premature to talk about specific debates and specific sponsors.”
• “We don’t have any response at this time,” says McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds.
• Saying that Clinton would not reject any proposal, her campaign strategist Phil Singer adds that “there are a lot of different ways to do [the events].”
In a letter sent to the candidates, AARP said it would provide the resources for the forums and design a format in consultation with the candidates, while remaining neutral in the contest.
“Our preference is for the participating candidates to come to a mutual understanding on their preferences, but we also stand ready to help the campaigns find common ground,” AARP said in the letter.
Joint forums would take “a giant step towards breaking the gridlock in Washington,” says AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond. “Only by putting aside our partisan differences and coming together in a search for solutions will we be able to achieve anything.”
In April, Clinton broached the idea of unmoderated debates with Obama. But leading in the delegate count and noting that the Democrats had already had more than 20 debates, Obama demurred.
In early May, McCain advisers, presuming Obama would be the Democratic candidate, suggested the idea of freewheeling debates with him. Obama seemed open to the suggestion.
AARP made the first specific offer to organize the debates.
The freewheeling style of the proposed forums recalls the famed debates that took place during the 1858 U.S. Senate race in Illinois between Republican Abraham Lincoln and Democrat Stephen Douglas. The Lincoln-Douglas events went on for hours and attracted large crowds who viewed them as entertainment, much as Americans today view sporting events.
Allan Louden, associate professor of communications at Wake Forest University and a presidential debates expert, says giving the candidates an opportunity to question each other would “make the whole process more civil. It would produce politeness right off the top.”
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