Presidents must speak a lot. Some, like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan were good both with a prepared speech and off-the-cuff remarks. Some, like both George Bushes, can deliver a speech just fine but sound as if they have little familiarity with the English language when they go off script. But I’m having trouble remembering a president who would fit the John McCain profile: quite good off the top of his head but miserable when delivering a prepared speech. He’s so bad in front of a teleprompter that, this past weekend, Robert Novak devoted part of his column to bemoaning McCain’s speaking style.

In a perfect world, the content of a candidate’s speech would matter far more than the speech’s delivery. But we all know that’s not how it works. In an election where McCain’s opponent is pretty much a master of rhetoric (able to capture hearts without even having to use specifics), McCain’s plodding style is not just annoying, it could be politically devastating. When deciding the all important “who do I want to listen to for the next four years” question, how many voters are going to opt for the old man with a fear of inflection?

This is why I think McCain is so keen on appearing alongside Barack Obama at joint town hall meetings. McCain is actually quite strong in such venues while Obama is less polished when he goes off script (just count the “umms” when he’s interviewed). Obama would do just fine in such forums but at least McCain would, from a rhetorical standpoint, have a fighting chance.

McCain has time to become more comfortable in front of a teleprompter. And Obama surely won’t win on the power of his speaking style alone. But I don’t undercount the importance of the candidates’ abilities to give a speech. McCain really needs to get better or hope he can talk Obama into enough town halls that American comes to see that the Arizona Senator also has a way with words.

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