Senators John McCain and Barack Obama share precious little in common aside from their mutual status as presidential frontrunners. Their policy, biographical and demographic differences are too numerous to list. Their worldviews clash. McCain has already clinched the GOP nomination, while Obama will likely win his party's popular and pledged delegate votes—even if a backroom deal robs him of the nomination. If McCain and Obama do indeed face one another in the general election, each candidate will have charted a course so remarkably dissimilar to the other's that they might as well have been campaigning on different planets. If, as some have suggested, Barack Obama's raucous rallies are reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen concerts, then John McCain's victory strategy resembles a series of coffee shop acoustic performances by a talented yet unglamorous musician.
Obama's strongest asset is his uncanny ability to sweep voters off of their feet with soaring, inspirational rhetoric. Few political candidates have the capacity to consistently raise goosebumps, cause swooning supporters to faint at rallies, and even elicit enthusiastic applause for feats such as nose-blowing. The rock concert analogy seems to fit: His campaign stops feature thousands of screaming fans and well-orchestrated performances culminating in hope-filled crescendos. The resulting images are a public relations dream—A young, attractive candidate literally surrounded by young, adoring supporters. How often do you see Barack Obama delivering a speech without hundreds of smiling faces as a backdrop? Almost never, and this is no accident; Obama's is a made-for-TV campaign and his advisors know it. They have wisely allowed their candidate to build a tidal wave of momentum through inspirational speeches, while downplaying policy details and the value of experience. The Democratic base is desperate for change, and Obama captured this sentiment early on in the campaign. Even if he's ill equipped to produce the change he promises, the fact that that he's been able to effectively identify and articulate the frustrations within his party has been a crucial advantage for him.
Unlike the unfolding soap opera on the other side of the isle, John McCain's rise from the ashes has not included many Kodak moments. Instead of wowing massive crowds with energizing speeches, McCain's turnaround began by hitting the pavement in New Hampshire and engaging voters in dozens of intimate town hall meetings. This brand of grind-it-out politics extricated him from the low single digits in the Granite State and vaulted him to a hard fought victory. McCain afforded voters the opportunity to interact with him, ask substantive questions, and experience an authentic exchange of ideas. This campaign method proved so effective that McCain's advisors recently announced the launch of a nationwide series of similar Q&A sessions, beginning in New Hampshire. How Apropos. In the coming weeks, as Obama and Clinton grab most of the headlines, McCain will play to his strengths by quietly reintroducing himself to the American people and opening a national dialogue about his ideas and agenda. As Obama talks to the public, McCain will talk with them.
The two men also differ stylistically when it comes to public speaking. By almost any traditional measure, Obama has a distinct advantage on this front. He has perfected the teleprompter-aided stem winder, replete with rhetorical flourishes and lofty platitudes. He's younger, more telegenic, and has a better voice than McCain. His polished style enchants audiences, and few people seem especially bothered when he carries on for close to an hour. McCain is not a great orator. He looks awkward when reading from a teleprompter and sounds choppy when reading from a hard copy script. He relies too heavily on the verbal crutch "my friends," and often interrupts his best applause lines. But might McCain's stilted delivery actually benefit him? Most successful politicians are excellent public speakers, so the fact that McCain isn't silky smooth bolsters his outsider image. McCain is a Washington player through and through, but his war on earmarks, maverick voting record, and straightforward style of communicating allow him to credibly cast himself as something other than a jaded insider.
McCain's embrace of the spontaneity of town hall meetings has also served him well in dealing with the press. When a dubious story questioning his ethics hit the front page of the New York Times several weeks ago, McCain confronted the story head-on by calling a press conference to respond to the report. After an opening statement, he released the hounds, fielding fielded no fewer than 36 queries about the matter. He soldiered through until reporters ran out of questions.
By contrast, a recent Barack Obama press conference actually exacerbated a media firestorm. Facing hostile questions in San Antonio dealing with subjects ranging from "NAFTAgate" to the Tony Rezko trial, Obama ducked, dodged, and departed after just a handful of questions. When frustrated reporters hurled more questions at him as he headed for the exit, Obama whined, "Guys, I mean come on. I just answered, like, eight questions!" After months of gushing Obama coverage, some reporters are beginning to grumble that his campaign offers the press limited access to the candidate. Others complain that Obama is prone to avoiding uncomfortable questions. Although interaction with unfriendly questioners is not a major part of Team Obama's script, they won't be able to get away with many more performances like that Texas debacle.
Obama's greatest strength may prove to be his Achilles heel, and McCain appears to recognize this. During his victory speech in Texas, John McCain remarked, "Americans aren't interested in an election where they're just talked to instead of listened to." He pledged to criss-cross the country and actually listen to voters. This is a less than subtle shot at Obama's speechifying. Should the public grow weary of Obama's seductive, vacuous rhetoric and wild pep rallies, McCain will be ready with his alternate approach. Ultimately, Bruce Springsteen might sell more tickets and generate more buzz, but the hardworking road warrior might just earn those elusive 270 electoral votes in November.