John McCain challenged Barack Obama today to a series of town hall meetings around the country over the next two months.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee said he sent a letter to the newly minted Democratic nominee to take part in 10 town hall meetings, one a week between now and the Democratic convention in late August. The first would be June 12 in New York City's Federal Hall.
McCain called the 2008 race the "most important election in a long, long time" and one with perhaps the biggest differences between the candidates on the issues.
"No matter who wins the election, the direction of the country is going to change dramatically," McCain said in Louisiana.
The Arizona senator said town hall meetings with the candidates answering questions from real people is far preferable to "media productions" with spin rooms. McCain has flourished in such settings.
"I believe it's the best way," he said.
McCain said the two contenders could travel together to the meetings on the same plane to save on energy. He said that Republican Barry Goldwater and President John F. Kennedy had agreed to such a series of meetings for the 1964 campaign before Kennedy was assassinated -- though it's unclear whether such a deal had been inked.
So far, there are three officially sanctioned presidential debates scheduled, Sept. 26 at the University of Mississippi, Oct. 7 at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., and Oct. 15 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.
Obama's campaign suggested some openness to the idea, but didn't commit to the town halls.
“As Barack Obama has said before, the idea of joint town halls is appealing and one that would allow a great conversation to take place about the need to change the direction of this country. We would recommend a format that is less structured and lengthier than the McCain campaign suggests, one that more closely resembles the historic debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. But, having just secured our party’s nomination, this is one of the many items we will be addressing in the coming days and look forward to discussing it with the McCain campaign,” Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said in a statement.
UPDATE: McCain communications director Jill Hazelbaker issued a statement:
"The American people deserve a debate worthy of their concerns and hopes for the future. Everyone can celebrate today's step toward that goal with an agreement, in spirit, between the McCain and Obama campaigns to participate in joint town hall appearances. Earlier this afternoon, the respective campaign managers spoke; they both expressed a commitment to raising the level of dialogue, and they will be in close contact as we work together to make this idea a reality."
Libertarian candidate Bob Barr, a former Georgia congressman, also wants in on the action.
"In congratulatory letters I am sending, I challenge Senators Obama and McCain to meet me in weekly debate in cities across America with just the candidates and a moderator to keep order," he said in a statement today. "Let us argue the issues, after which the American people can make their decision on Election Day. Surely the citizens of the greatest nation on earth deserve no less."
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Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.