June 8, 2008 -- New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and ABC News have invited Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain to participate in a 90-minute, primetime town hall meeting to be broadcast live from Federal Hall in New York City, but the two campaigns said today they do not want the event to be broadcast by only one network.
Obama, D-Ill., and McCain, R-Ariz., have indicated a willingness to participate in such a forum -- unprecedented in the history of modern presidential campaigns -- though both camps said today they want the event to be available for broad distribution.
"Both the McCain and Obama campaigns agree the town halls will be open to press, but not sponsored or monitored by the press," Brooke Buchanan, the McCain campaign's traveling press secretary, said.
Jeffrey Schneider, a spokesman for ABC News, said the network is ready to discuss the idea of wider distribution of the event.
"We think the important thing is bringing the candidates together," he said.
The idea for such town hall appearances -- instead of or in addition to the traditional structured presidential debates -- was first floated by McCain's camp, and was accepted by Obama.
"We are thrilled to see you both embrace the idea of joint town hall meetings where voters can an have unfiltered opportunity to hear how each candidate would address the great issues facing our country," read a letter sent to both campaigns today from Bloomberg, I-New York City, and ABC News president David Westin extending the invitation to the two campaigns.
"On behalf of the City of New York and ABC News we respectfully offer to host and broadcast the first of these town halls on a date that can be agreed upon by all parties."
Under the plan proposed by ABC News, "Good Morning America" anchor Diane Sawyer would moderate the event.
Historic Campaign, Unprecedented Offer
"I don't think we need any big media-run productions, no processed questions from reporters, no spin rooms, just two Americans running for the highest office in the greatest nation on earth responding to the concerns of the people whose trust that we must earn," McCain told an audience in Baton Rouge, La., on Wednesday.
The concept was modeled, McCain said, after a series of debates that would have been scheduled between President John F. Kennedy, and Sen. Barry Goldwater for the 1964 presidential campaign.
Sen. Obama, on the same day McCain made his offer, said he would be open to such a format.
"Oh, we're definitely going to be doing some town hall debates," Obama told ABC News' Charlie Gibson in an interview the day after clinching the Democratic nomination.
"I look forward, you know, having more than just the three traditional debates that we've seen in recent presidential contests."
The McCain campaign released a letter they sent to Obama asking for 10 debates -- one a week starting on June 12 -- that will lead up to the Democratic National Convention at the end of August.
Obama said beginning such events the week after he wrapped up the nomination against former rival Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., would be a "little premature."
Kennedy & Goldwater's Lost Opportunity
McCain, who holds the Senate seat once filled by Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential nominee, said the town halls were inspired by an agreement forged between Goldwater and President Kennedy in the 1960s.
"One of the great regrets of the tragedy in Dallas was the campaign that we missed between Senator Barry Goldwater, my predecessor, and President Jack Kennedy," McCain told ABC News in an interview for "World News" last week.
"They had agreed . . . that they would travel around the country on the same plane and go to a town, and have a debate and discussion, and town hall meetings, and then go to another one. I think America missed a rare opportunity at that time. Look at what campaigns have deteriorated into, and I mean deteriorated: sound bites, gotchas, attack ads, 527s. So I think this may be trying to revive what I think most Americans would have approved of way back in the 1960s and they certainly want today."
The joint letter from Mayor Bloomberg and ABC News endorses that spirit: "We make this offer because we believe that town hall meetings further the American ideal of participatory democracy. As President Lincoln said in the first Lincoln-Douglas debate in Illinois, 'Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.' "
McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, reached out to David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, to discuss McCain's initial offer.
"We would recommend a format that is less structured and lengthier than the McCain campaign suggests," wrote Plouffe in an e-mail to reporters last week, saying that Obama would prefer to create an atmosphere of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which were marked by hour-long speeches and hour-long rebuttals.
Speaking with reporters Wednesday, McCain recommitted to the idea of a town hall format.
"If there is some way to modify the details of it then I'll be glad to obviously discuss that," McCain said. "But I want a town hall meeting . . . I think [the American people] have an ample opportunity to hear long speeches."
McCain also said that he hoped he and Obama could arrive at the site of the first debate on the same airplane.
"I even suggested we travel to them together, on the same plane. Probably help out on energy savings. Given our expenses, I know my campaign would agree to it," McCain joked.
Federal Hall, the site proposed by ABC News and the City of New York, has hosted its share of historic moments.
George Washington took the oath of office at Federal Hall and the building, a national historic site, was home to the first Congress and Supreme Court when New York City served as the nation's first capital.
"We believe that a joint town hall meeting at Federal Hall in New York City," reads the letter released Sunday, "represents a unique opportunity to capture the interest of voters as the general election campaign kicks off."