WASHINGTON – President Bush and Sen. John Kerry (search) talk often about the needs and ambitions of ordinary people, but neither encounters many along a campaign trail defined by the exquisitely stage-managed photo op and fortified by Secret Service (search) agents.
Despite almost daily campaign events styled as "town hall" sessions with voters, such as the candidates held Monday, neither the Republican incumbent nor the Democratic challenger has much recent experience with the relatively unscripted town-hall format of their next debate on Friday.
What the campaigns call town-hall events, or informal, shirt-sleeve bull sessions, are really almost as staged as traditional speeches or whoop-and-holler rallies.
The crowds almost always range from friendly to adoring. Bush events are ticket-only, and the tickets are usually passed out by the Bush campaign or other supporters. Kerry sometimes uses tickets, sometimes not. Still, supporters seem to easily outnumber undecided voters or opponents at Kerry town-hall sessions.
For both, the questions are almost always soft balls.
Sometimes, they aren't questions at all, as with a woman at the "Ask President Bush" town hall in Clive, Iowa, on Monday.
"Thank you for not joining the International Criminal Court and thank you for signing into law the partial-birth abortion ban," she said.
At Kerry's town-hall session in Hampton, N.H., an emotional woman, elderly and ailing, interrupted Kerry, not to pose a question, but to pledge her support for him and his position favoring wider stem-cell research.
"I love you," Kerry replied.
Bush even asked himself a question Monday, on the possibility of a renewed military draft, then answered it. No, he will not institute one.
"The operation is so sophisticated that although they say it's open to the public, you only have a prescreened audience," unlikely to ask a candidate, especially the president, any question he doesn't like, said Dennis Goldford, political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
Bush campaign officials have acknowledged efforts to keep hecklers out and that, on at least one occasion, some Democrats who signed up to attend a speech by Vice President Dick Cheney were asked to sign a pledge endorsing Bush.
The door policy at Kerry's events is a little looser and, perhaps as a result, he sometimes faces hecklers or disruptions, like one at Monday's event staged by apparent supporters of failed presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche.
Kerry laughed off the encounter. Separately, he got in a dig at Bush:
"I trust that no one here had to sign a loyalty oath to get in," Kerry said. "Everybody is free to ask whatever you want."
Kerry's campaign said tickets for the event were available to the general public, although some were distributed to people affiliated with stem cell research.
The audience for Friday's presidential debate will be a lot less predictable.
By agreement, the 100 to 150 people will be equal parts "soft" Bush supporters and "soft" Kerry supporters. That means they are leaning to one candidate or the other but willing to be persuaded otherwise.
The audience will be hand-picked, but by the Gallup polling organization, not the campaigns. Members will submit questions to a moderator ahead of time, and the campaigns will not know the topics.
That may bode better for Kerry, who even if somewhat cosseted as a presidential nominee can better recall the rough and tumble of a recent primary fight he nearly lost.
Bush looked affronted in last week's first debate, Goldford said, unaccustomed as an incumbent president to being challenged face to face.
If Monday was a practice session for Bush, he didn't have to sweat much. There were polite questions about Medicare costs and the war in Iraq, but also unabashed partisanship.
"When you go into that next debate, stand up and tell that opponent of yours exactly what you're saying today," a supporter advised.