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Camps start talks on town-hall meetings

McCain favors less formal gatherings. He suggested to Obama having the first one next Thursday in New York.

Sen. John McCain yesterday asked Sen. Barack Obama to join him in 10 town-hall meetings with voters in the coming months, and their campaigns began negotiations to make it happen.

The presumptive Republic presidential nominee made the request the day after Obama clinched the Democratic nomination.

"We need to now sit down and work out a way that we can have these town-hall meetings and have a great debate," McCain said in Baton Rouge, La.

Campaign managers for the two sides later spoke by phone and agreed in spirit to participate in joint town-hall appearances, McCain's campaign said.

McCain spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said, "They both expressed a commitment to raising the level of dialogue, and they will be in close contact as we work together to make this idea a reality."

The Arizona senator said the more intimate town-hall format allows real interaction and is more revealing than formal televised debates. He held 101 town-hall meetings in New Hampshire before winning the primary there and launching his climb to the nomination.

"I don't think we need any big media-run production, no process questions from reporters, no spin rooms," McCain said. "Just two Americans running for office in the greatest nation on Earth, responding to the questions of the people whose trust we must earn."

McCain suggested that the first town hall be June 12 in New York and said he would love to fly there on a plane with Obama.

A McCain adviser first floated the idea last month. At the time, Obama said: "I think that's a great idea."

"Obviously, we would have to think through the logistics on that," Obama said then, in Bend, Ore., but "if I have the opportunity to debate substantive issues before the voters with John McCain, that's something that I am going to welcome."

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said yesterday that while the idea was appealing, the campaign would recommend a less-structured, lengthier exchange more in line with the historic Lincoln-Douglas debates.

In those debates, held seven times during Abraham Lincoln's losing Senate campaign against Stephen Douglas in Illinois in 1858, one candidate spoke for an hour, then the other spoke for 11/2 hours, then the first candidate was allowed a half-hour rebuttal.

Also yesterday, Obama, speaking to Jewish political activists in Washington, linked McCain to Bush administration policies on the Middle East that he described as disastrous.

The Iraq war has made Iran stronger and the United States and Israel less secure, Obama said in a long-scheduled speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Because of the war, he said, "Iran, which always posed a greater threat to Israel than Iraq, is emboldened, and poses the greatest strategic challenge to the United States and Israel in the Middle East in a generation. Iraq is unstable, and al-Qaeda has stepped up its recruitment."

Israel's peace efforts have stalled, he said, "and America is more isolated in the region, reducing our strength and jeopardizing Israel's safety."

"As president I will never compromise when it comes to Israel's security," he told the crowd of 7,000.

McCain, President Bush and some Democrats have criticized Obama for saying he would talk with leaders of hostile governments, and they say he underestimates the Iranian threat. Such attacks could pose problems for Obama in key states such as Florida, home to many Jewish voters, some of whom have questioned his commitment to Israel.

Obama outlined his limits on negotiations with adversaries.

"We must isolate Hamas unless and until they renounce terrorism, recognize Israel's right to exist, and abide by past agreements," he said of the Palestinian group opposed to Israel. "There is no room at the negotiating table for terrorist organizations."

Obama said he had "no interest in sitting down with our adversaries just for the sake of talking." But, he said, "I would be willing to lead tough and principled diplomacy with the appropriate Iranian leaders at a time and place of my choosing if and only if it can advance the interests of the United States."

When McCain addressed the Jewish group Monday, he ridiculed Obama for suggesting he would sit down with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Obama said McCain "criticizes my willingness to use strong diplomacy, but offers only an alternate reality - one where the war in Iraq has somehow put Iran on its heels. The truth is the opposite."

Obama was followed on stage by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom he had warmly praised. She told the audience that Obama "will be a good friend to Israel."