Out on the campaign trail, town hall-style meetings are often held in barns, or factories or high school gyms. John McCain’s "Town Hall Meeting in New York" on Thursday night took place under the vaunted marble dome and pillars of Federal Hall, where the audience mostly looked like they had wandered in directly from their Wall Street offices. Men wearing dark suits and long power ties and women, most of them blond, surrounded a wooden podium, next to a thigh-high speaker. In the quiet, show’s-about-to-begin minutes before McCain arrived, Tony Carbonetti, the former chief political adviser to Rudy Giuliani and a good friend of McCain, twisted in his second row seat to chat with Senators Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman behind him.
McCain, wearing a gray suit and a striped tie, came out calling New York a "great city" and honoring "this great Federal Hall."
A little more than eight years ago, this same Federal Hall was the site of a dramatic, defiant appearance by McCain: In the heat of a bitter Republican primary fight with George W. Bush, he stood on the steps, surrounded by war veterans, and railed against “comrade” George Pataki for attempting to keep him off the New York ballot.
Last night was a calmer affair. McCain explained that he preferred town hall meetings because they encapsulated "the essence of everything about America I believe in" and that, as a result, it was especially disappointing that Barack Obama had declined an invitation to join him at the forum.
"It would have been a little more interesting tonight if Senator Obama had accepted my request for him to be here," said McCain, who also promised to "block out a day every week to do this."
The reporters perched on the balconies overlooking the floor, scribbling in notebooks they held over the ornately carved wood banisters. Next to them, in a dark room, McCain’s staff monitored nine television screens showing the senator pacing the floor.
In brief prepared remarks to the enthusiastically friendly crowd, McCain said his candidacy existed to provide "reform, prosperity and peace" to the country. And McCain, who has been under near-constant attack from the Democratic Party for staffing his campaign with prominent lobbyists, said that elected officials could "begin by cleaning up our act in Washington."
In his remarks about foreign policy, McCain made light fun of France, and of his age.
"We now have a pro-American president of France, which shows that if you live long enough anything can happen," he said.
McCain then sought to portray Obama as insensitive to the needs of everyday Americans by arguing that the Democratic nominee wanted to deny them the "little relief" of the gas tax holiday he has proposed. As for the economists who think the proposal is a bad one – and there’s no shortage of prominent ones who do — he was as dismissive as Hillary Clinton was when the issue came up in the primary.
"If you took all the economists in the world and put them end to end, they still wouldn’t reach a conclusion," he said, citing an old line, not for the first time.
Unlike his other applause lines, this one got a muted reaction from the Wall Street-centric crowd.
McCain closed his prepared remarks with a now-standard mix of attacks on Obama and arguments for why the war in Iraq, to which his candidacy is largely tethered, is going well.
"He wants to raise taxes," McCain said of Obama, adding, "He wants the government to make the choices."
On Iraq, he said, "Thank God for General David Petraeus," and, as always, "I would much rather lose a political campaign than lose a war," and “we are succeeding, we are succeeding."
The questions from the audience ranged from whether he would agree to allow third-party candidates like Bob Barr and Ralph Nader to join him and Obama on the debate stage ("I would if they met certain objective criteria," he said) to an inquiry about whether he would discuss his military service during the campaign.
"Yes,” McCain answered, “but I don’t consider myself a hero."
Responding to a question about bipartisanship, McCain called Obama’s record "extreme" and then said that "he wants to raise taxes in very difficult times" and talk to the world’s worst dictators.
"Without any precondition?" McCain asked incredulously.
The most interesting question came from a small-business owner from Staten Island who complained about the lack of regulation on the stock market and the price gouging that helped boost oil and gas prices.
"There needs to be a thorough and complete investigation of speculators," said McCain, adding "I am very angry, frankly, at the oil companies." The reply gave way to a longer defense of the free-market system.
At another point, he answered a question about education by saying, "I think there has been significant progress in the New York City school system."
After the event, the McCain campaign talked up his performance, and made much of the mere fact that he had shown up to participate in such a format.
"When he does these question-and-answers, it shows, ‘Here I am, scars and all, answering the questions,’” said Ed Cox, the chairman of McCain’s New York campaign. “Frankly, George Bush didn’t do it. Is Obama out here? Obama can’t handle it."