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McCain Faces Mixed Audience in Denver Town Hall

DENVER — One thing is certain, the audience at Sen. John McCain’s town hall meeting in Denver on Monday afternoon was certainly not pre-screened. The likely GOP nominee fielded critical questions on a range of topics, including his voting record on veterans’ issues, the impeachment of President Geroge W. Bush, the Arizona senator’s support for the Patriot Act and the impending vote on FISA legislation.

The first question from the audience came from a Vietnam veteran, who challenged McCain’s record of supporting health care for veterans. It was followed by this testy exchange, during which McCain fell back on his endorsements from veteran groups:

McCain: “I don’t know what bill you’re referring to…and I’ll be glad to have you refer to it. The reason why I have a perfect voting record from organizations like Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion and all the other veterans’ service organizations is because I support them.”

Audience Member: “You do not have a perfect voting record with [Disabled American Veterans] and VFW. That’s where these votes are recorded. The votes were for proposals by your colleagues in the Senate to increase health-care funding for the [Veterans Administration] in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006, for troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. You voted against those proposals. I can give the numbers of those Senate votes right now.”

McCain: “I thank you and I’d be glad to examine what your version of my record is. Again, I’ve been endorsed in every election by all of the veterans’ organizations that do that. I’ve been supported by them and received the highest awards from all of those organizations, so I guess they don’t know something you know. I thank you very much and I will continue to be proud of my support for the veterans of this country.”

Though visibly annoyed, McCain kept his cool. He later received an enthusiastic endorsement from another veteran — a self-described Democrat from Pueblo, Colo.

A disabled woman in a wheelchair wanted to know if he would support the Community Choice Act, which would give disabled Americans more options as to where they receive medical care.

Now, it’s probably impossible not to appear cold-hearted when telling somebody in a wheelchair that you don’t support their pet legislation, but McCain sucked it up and told her just that, without getting into specifics:

“I will not [support the Community Choice Act] because I don’t think it’s the right kind of legislation. I’m proud to be one of the many people who were involved in the original Americans With Disabilities Act. We will continue to update it in that way and improve as needed. The Community Choice Act is not a piece of legislation that I support. … I will continue to communicate with you and I will continue my commitment to all Americans with disabilities.”

It is important to note that the vast majority of the audience were obviously McCain supporters, and he received a good deal of glowing praise and “friendly” questions. However, the senator, by my count, received nearly as many critical questions. Many of these came from young people holding video cameras, presumably to videotape his answers and disseminate them on Websites like YouTube. McCain noticed all the video equipment and cracked a joke.

“I appreciate all the young men and women who [brought] cameras with them. It’s good for the economy. Keep buying those cameras.”

Toward the end of the meeting, McCain received a question about his support for the impeachment of President Bill Clinton — but not that of President George W. Bush, as proposed by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). The very mention of Clinton’s impeachment drew raucous cheers from the Republicans in the crowd. McCain responded:

“I don’t believe that [an] effort to impeach the president of the United States is appropriate, necessary or called for. That’s just my position.”

Later, as McCain was bringing the meeting to a close, the questioner called out that McCain did not answer his question. McCain replied:

“I won’t support those articles of impeachment [for President Bush], how can I answer it any more clearly?”

At this point, it got a little chaotic. Boos erupted from the crowd, and some audience members shouted at each other across the room. Eventually, McCain stepped in, saying, “If we all start yelling then it doesn’t really get very enjoyable.”

He then addressed the questioner, raising his voice a bit as he seemed clearly perturbed:

“I appreciate the fact that you’re here, and I appreciate that if there’s one goal we have to have, it’s to get all Americans – but especially young people – involved in this campaign and this election because what we do, frankly, will affect you far more than any other group of Americans, for obvious reasons.”

This scene was wildly entertaining to watch. But it was unfortunate because it who knows it it might spell the end for this free-form style of town hall meeting — apparently the only method that Mccain says he wanted to use for interacting with the public. Yes, the sentor did manage to keep his infamous temper under control, but there were moments where you could see it starting to bubble to the surface.

In the past, the campaign has distributed tickets to the meetings through supporters and other friendly groups. This meeting may have been an experiment on the part of the campaign, to see what would happen if they simply let anyone in. McCain’s handlers, acutely aware of anything that might look bad on television, surely took notice of today’s spectacle. My guess is that the next town hall — scheduled for Wednesday in Portsmouth, Ohio, — will be more subdued, and the audience much more thoroughly screened.

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