Washington — The first question I asked John McCain and then Barack Obama was: How do you feel about the tone and direction of the campaign so far?
No surprise. Both men pronounced themselves thoroughly frustrated by the personal bitterness and negativism they have seen in the two months since they learned they would be running against each other.
"I'm very sorry about it," McCain said in a Saturday interview at his Arlington, Va., headquarters. "I think we could have avoided at least some of this if we had agreed to do the town hall meetings" together, as he had suggested, during the summer.
Obama, in a phone interview Wednesday from Elkhart, Ind., argued that "the classic tit-for-tat campaigning" of recent weeks "is part of the politics of the past that we have to move beyond." Ironically, having turned down McCain's proposal for weekly joint town halls, Obama argued that the formal debates, starting in late September, may refocus the campaign on real issues.
Back on June 4, McCain proposed 10 joint town halls before screened audiences of uncommitted independent voters across the country. Obama countered by offering two such sessions this summer, one on Independence Day and one in August, and the idea died. Three days ago, Obama said he would participate only in the three debates sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, the first scheduled for Sept. 26.
Since the idea of joint town meetings was scrapped, the campaign has featured tough and often negative ads and speeches. They culminated last week with an exchange in which Obama said that McCain and his supporters were calling attention to the Democrat's unusual name and the fact that "he doesn't look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills."
The McCain campaign in turn accused Obama of playing "the race card." In the interviews, both candidates expressed indignation at what was being said of them. "I'm not going to be smeared," McCain declared. "I went through that once and I'm not going to do it again. ... If anybody says I'm a racist ... I'm not going to stand for that."
Obama insisted that he had never made such an accusation. And he condemned McCain for suggesting that "I would rather lose a war to win a political campaign. That is patently offensive. When his campaign ran an ad suggesting that I had refused to visit wounded troops because I couldn't have TV cameras with me, reporters immediately said that was patently false. ... I'm not going to sit back and let my record be distorted."
When I asked Obama how he thought the campaign could be returned to the issues, he said he hoped that the two conventions would "offer each party a chance to showcase its best ideas" and then the three scheduled presidential debates "will allow people to see Senator McCain and myself interact in a way that keeps people more honest because you're standing there face to face."
I told Obama that McCain made exactly that point in arguing for the early joint appearances. What McCain actually said was: "When you have to stand on a stage with your opponent, as I've done in other campaigns, you obviously have a tendency to improve the relationship. ... When you have to spend time with somebody, I think it changes the equation."
I asked Obama if he had any regrets now about turning down McCain's early June invitation to start the joint appearances back then. He said, "I think the notion that somehow as a consequence of not having joint appearances, Senator McCain felt obliged to suggest that I'd rather lose a war to win a campaign doesn't automatically follow. I think we each have control over ourselves and our campaigns and we have to take responsibility for that."
He also argued that "We responded with an offer of doing five debates, rather than the traditional three, which the McCain campaign declined."
"My general point," Obama continued, "is that both the conventions and the debates will offer formats for Senator McCain and myself to make our best case to the American people at a time when the American people will be paying attention.
"And ultimately, the best corrective to overly negative campaigns are the American people, who are not interested in a lot of bickering, but are interested in who's got the best answers for the country."
I think everybody would agree to that last point.