McCain addresses voters' questions, blasts opponentby Curtis Gilbert, Minnesota Public Radio
At a forum in St. Paul Thursday night, presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain drew sharp contrasts between his Democratic opponent Barack Obama and himself.
During the town hall styled event, Sen. McCain answered questions from a group of preselected undecided voters on a number of issues, including Iraq, health care, gas prices and renewable energy.
St. Paul, Minn. — In a town hall style event at the Landmark Center in St. Paul Thursday night, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., took questions from about 200 voters the campaign had identified as "undecided."
In addition to the undecided voters, there were also McCain supporters in the audience, but the campaign said they were seated in a separate section, and they were not allowed to ask questions.
Sen. McCain opened the event by criticizing Obama for going back on his pledge to accept public financing for his general election campaign.
"I strongly feel that Sen. Obama should review his commitment, not to me, but to the American people," said McCain.
Obama pledged last year that he would accept federal matching funds and the spending limits that go with them, if McCain would do the same. Today Obama announced he would not abide by that pledge, and instead he would rely on his large network of small donors.
After addressing the crowd for about 10 minutes, McCain took questions from the preselected undecided voters.
One audience member spoke in glowing terms about Gov. Tim. Pawlenty, and he suggested McCain choose him as his running mate.
McCain didn't speak to Pawlenty's prospects, but he did shower Pawlenty with praise, and even invited the governor to offer his thoughts on a question about health care reform.
"I believe that Gov. Pawlenty is the next and new generation of leadership in the Republican Party and in America," McCain said, adding: "I know he has a place in the future of this country as well as our Republican Party."
McCain also addressed questions about foreign policy, renewable energy, immigration and education.
In response to an audience member who asked McCain how he'll convince conservatives he's not "just another liberal panderer," McCain said there are clear differences between Obama and him.
"I'm for lower taxes. Sen. Obama is for raising your taxes," McCain said. "I'm for the family making the decisions on health care. He wants the government to do that. We obviously are very different on our national security policies."
When asked about the war in Iraq, McCain said if progress continues, he believes American troops will be able to come home "with honor and victory."
McCain said Obama's call for withdrawal from Iraq would be disastrous.
"If we'd have done what he wanted to do a long time ago, I am convinced that we would have been in a wider war," McCain said.
McCain challenged Obama to meet him face to face in a series of town hall style events. Obama has expressed openness to the idea.
The McCain campaign said Wednesday that they invited Obama to participate in the St. Paul event.
Identifying undecided voters
The approximately 200 attendees who asked McCain questions were identified as undecided voters by the McCain campaign.
According to McCain spokesperson Jeff Sadosky, the campaign hired Direct Response Group, a telephone marketing firm, to help identify the undecided voters to be in the audience.
Sadosky said the campaign gave priority to those voters who identified themselves as politically independent and did not have a preference in the presidential election race when asked in a telephone survey.
Diane Woods of Inver Grove Heights got one of those phone calls.
"They just asked me if we were leaning in any particular way, and I said 'No,'" Woods explained, saying she has voted for Democrats and Republicans in the past.
Woods said she hoped McCain would talk about energy policy, the war in Iraq, and his plans for the military. She has a son in the armed forces.
But Woods said she was too shy to ask McCain about any of those things Thursday night. She said she was happy just to listen.
"It's not every day you get invited to see a Senator, let alone a presidential candidate," Woods said.
Carla Jefferson of Golden Valley, Minn., also scored a ticket to the McCain Town Hall.
If she got a chance, Jefferson wanted to ask McCain about the national debt. "It's something that really worries me," she said.
Jefferson usually votes for Democrats and originally supported Hillary Clinton for president. However, she says she is open to voting for McCain, because she considers him a liberal Republican.
Jefferson brought her son Sam to the event as well. He is leaning toward Obama, but said he could be persuaded by McCain tonight. At only 14 years old, he is too young to vote, though.
McCain fund raiser
Prior to the town hall meeting, McCain participated in a big dollar fundraiser at the Hilton hotel in downtown Minneapolis. Tickets for the event started at $1,000 and went up to $50,000.
About 100 people showed up to protest at that event. Most of the protesters were either anti-war and labor groups.
"Money for health care, money for war, hands off Iraq," chanted the crowd of protesters.
Antiwar protester Larry Thorin of St. Paul marched with several signs slung around his shoulder.
"I don't see McCain changing anything," he said.
There was a heavy police presence at the event, but there were no arrests in Minneapolis. One man was arrested in St. Paul after beating on the Landmark Center door and refusing to heed police calls to step away from the building.
Less than a dozen people protested outside the St. Paul event.
MPR reporters Jess Mador, Tom Scheck, Laura Yuen and Mark Zdechlik contributed to this report.