- The Washington Times - Friday, August 14, 2009

There is no guarantee that President Obama will be able to avoid critics of his health care proposal when he hosts a town-hall meeting in Belgrade, Mont., Friday.

Local officials in Belgrade and neighboring Bozeman personally oversaw the handing out of passes Thursday in much the same fashion that a venue would dole out tickets to a rock concert. Hundreds of people seeking to attend the president’s event began lining up Wednesday afternoon, and camped out overnight in the parking lots of the two local municipal buildings.

Karen Semerau, the Bozeman official who helped oversee the distribution, said some people brought their dogs, others put up tents, and but for a brief rain shower, those in line appeared to be upbeat about the chance to hear from, and question, the president about his plan.

“I couldn’t tell by looking at people if they were for the president’s plan or against it,” Ms. Semerau said. “But I can say that the group was totally mixed - college kids, older folks, all walks of life.”

The White House has reacted strongly to questioning about whether the administration took steps to rig the audience at his last town hall, in Portsmouth, N.H., after those denied tickets complained that the audience seemed unusually friendly to his point of view.

Press secretary Robert Gibbs said repeatedly that the administration made no effort to exclude the sorts of vocal opponents who have inflamed congressional town-hall events elsewhere in the country.

There is no evidence that the White House did anything to screen the crowd. But many of the protesters outside the New Hampshire event said they found it disturbing that, even when the president explicitly sought out skeptics in the audience, the majority of questions thrown his way were softballs.

Mr. Gibbs said he believes the media have been disappointed that there were no fireworks at the president’s town hall. He also made clear that, while the president does not welcome the sort of belligerent hecklers that have surfaced at numerous congressional town halls, he is holding his events to address what he says is misinformation that he thinks is fanning much of the opposition.

“I do think that people have questions,” Mr. Gibbs said Thursday. “I think that’s why - I mean, the president isn’t out doing town-hall meetings just for his health. I mean, he wants to - I think he understands the need to address concerns or misconceptions out there.”

Both the White House and a number of labor and advocacy groups have been ramping up campaigns to correct those misconceptions, including a Web site and a chain e-mail written by the president’s top political adviser, David Axelrod, which began circulating this week.

Marilyn Foltz, a city official in Belgrade, said she believes the Montana residents who waited overnight for tickets in queues that she said snaked like the lines at Disneyworld, “just want to hear what the president had to say.”

“There was no effort,” Ms. Foltz said, to skew the audience for the president’s benefit. “It was very truly first-come, first-served. The tickets were dispensed until they were gone.”

• Matthew Mosk can be reached at mmosk@washingtontimes.com.

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