Sen. Barack Obama’s resistance to his rival’s clamor for more presidential debates — and his plan to run TV ads for the remaining nine contests — reveal a campaign strategy focused more on how he personally engages with voters than his policy platform.
Since he last met Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on a debate stage, Mr. Obama has denounced many of that forum’s questions as “distractions,” and criticized ABC moderators for not asking about the economy until 45 minutes into the program.
Mrs. Clinton has traditionally fared better in debates, and is pushing Mr. Obama to meet her on a debate stage before one of the nine upcoming contests.
Instead of agreeing to a debate, the campaign is going live with ads in each of the remaining media markets. An Obama aide confirmed the ads will reach voters from Oregon to Puerto Rico, and new ads are already posted in West Virginia and South Dakota. He is also advertising in Indiana and North Carolina.
“I think the people have a pretty good sense of where Senator Clinton and I stand, and what we”re talking about during the course of these debates,” Mr. Obama explained to CNN radio on why he does not believe there will be another debate before May 6.
“At this point, what”s most important to me is making sure I’m talking directly to people, doing as many town halls as possible, letting them ask questions of me directly. Me hearing from them, and finding out what they think and what they care about,” he said. “With only two weeks and two big states to cover, it”s not clear that another debate is going to be the best use of our time.”
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The Obama campaign has long said the candidate does better in states when voters get a chance to meet him, and he’s allowed more time on the campaign trail by avoiding a debate. His aides note Mr. Obama had previously accepted one North Carolina debate while the Clinton camp accepted a different debate. The discrepancy forced organizers to scrap a debate scheduled for tomorrow.
“Now we’re going to spend our time meeting voters in North Carolina, and we’ll move on from there,” Obama strategist David Axelrod said.
But Mrs. Clinton of New York, who got cheers on the stump for mocking Mr. Obama’s debate complaints, is calling on her rival to face her once more.
“I’ll go anywhere, any time to have a debate because, you know, the issues in Pennsylvania are not the same as the issues in North Carolina,” Mrs. Clinton told voters in North Carolina yesterday.
However, several Pennsylvania voters had complained about the ABC debate, saying it had little to do with their state’s concerns.
“It seemed like overkill, pointless,” said Obama supporter Sekela Coles of Upper Darby, Pa. “I wasn”t connecting with the questions being asked. Why not ask about affordable child care or mortgages? The back and forth, well, we”ve seen that already.”
Mrs. Clinton, who long has painted Mr. Obama as all talk and no substance, blasted his “speeches and big rallies,” and ran ads accusing him of avoiding her call to debate him in Wisconsin.
Obama supporter Rep. G.K. Butterfield, North Carolina Democrat, said yesterday that Mr. Obama told him that if he agreed to a North Carolina debate before May 6, he would have to agree to one in Indiana.
According to Mr. Butterfield, Mr. Obama said: “I think I want to take my message to America in a different method.”
Mr. Butterfield told reporters that Mr. Obama is “using his time to go one-on-one with the voters, and I approve of that.”
“I don’t know the usefulness at this late stage now to have a debate,” he said.
Clinton supporter Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana disagreed, telling The Times in Munster, Ind., that his state’s voters are being treated as “second-class citizens.”
“We have thousands of people in Indiana who are trying to make up their minds who to vote for, and they deserve an opportunity to see both candidates stand side by side, take the tough questions, lay out their visions for a better America so the voters can make an informed choice,” he said.
Mr. Obama said before the two February debates in Texas and Ohio that he doubted their helpfulness, telling reporters that they have had so many he could make Mrs. Clinton’s arguments for her and vice versa. Mr. Butterfield echoed that sentiment.
“Every issue has been debated. Their views are 97 percent aligned,” Mr. Butterfield said. “There are some material differences between the two, but the American people know what those differences are. I don’t know the usefulness at this late stage now of having yet another debate.”
While the candidates have met for 20 debates, just four have been Clinton-Obama showdowns. Many of the substantive policy questions were fleshed out when there were eight candidates in the race and every question could not be answered by everybody. For example, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama have fielded few debate questions on environmental policy or Hurricane Katrina.
“People in these states haven’t gotten a chance to see these candidates up close,” said Clinton spokesman Phil Singer.
The Clinton campaign noted a Greensboro newspaper editorial detailing more than 20,000 people requested tickets for the now-canceled North Carolina debate.
Mr. Axelrod acknowledged recently on CBS he believed Mr. Obama had done “too much of that iconic, rally kind of campaign,” and the candidate’s recent and upcoming schedule reflects a focus on smaller events where he takes questions from voters.
Obama adviser Steve Hildebrand announced the campaign’s new voter-registration drive yesterday, a 50-state program that will kick off May 10 to foster Democratic involvement at all levels of government.
“This is not a campaign about him,” Mr. Hildebrand said. “From the beginning, he has wanted to do everything we can to involve more Americans in their government.”
He said the drive will help the party in November against the Republicans, and will aid down-ballot Democratic candidates in red states such as Wyoming that might not necessarily be considered in play for the presidential nominee in the fall.