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How the candidates' speaking styles play

McCain is unscripted. Obama is soaring. In these times, both styles have their advantages.

By Ariel Sabar / July 11, 2008

Straight-talking: John McCain is known for frankness. A recent staff shake-up, however, was intended to help focus his campaign's message.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

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Portsmouth, Ohio - John McCain has made nuclear power a centerpiece of his energy plan. But at a town hall-style meeting in this struggling Appalachian city Wednesday, the first person he called on was a local woman in the corner with a hand-drawn "No Nukes" sign.

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"Because of the interest of exchanging ideas and views that we may not agree with," Senator McCain said, striding toward her in the high school gymnasium, "I'll bring you a microphone, and you and I can have a little exchange and dialogue."

It's the kind of gesture seldom seen from McCain's Democratic rival, Barack Obama, a wizard of oratory who can rock a stadium but is less at ease in the sort of unscripted exchanges that are perhaps McCain's only rhetorical trump.

If the 2008 election is a study in contrasts, few are as striking as the candidates' differences as public speakers.

McCain is the blunt-spoken platoon leader, briefing soldiers for battle. Senator Obama is the evangelist, calling out from the hilltop. McCain levels. Obama transcends. McCain is straight talk, Obama great talk.

When Democrats announced this week that Obama would accept his party's nomination at a 75,000-seat football stadium – on the anniversary, no less, of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech – McCain advisers waved off questions about how Republicans would compete.

"John McCain isn't going to go into a stadium and talk to 70,000 people – you all know that," Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO who is one of his top advisers and a possible vice-presidential pick, said at a gathering for reporters in Washington this week. "It's not his," she said, pausing for a long moment before shrugging her shoulders, "personality."

Whether style matters is a subject of debate. But the times – rather than any axiom of politics – seem to dictate what sounds sweetest to voters' ears, analysts say.

William Jennings Bryan and Adlai Stevenson were star orators but never won the presidency. George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter were yawn-inducers at a lectern, but did.

An eloquent appeal to ideals like "hope" works best when voters want a crisp break from the past. When life is a daily struggle because of high gasoline prices and an unrelenting mortgage, they respond better to plain speech and nuts-and-bolts policy prescriptions.

When the times are a mix of both, voters can hear siren songs in each style of speech.