A PACKED HOUSE…. A few months ago, John McCain described his favorite setting — town-hall meetings — as the “essence of democracy.” McCain seemed to revel in interacting with audiences, fielding all kinds of questions. That is, until the campaign reached crunch time — before yesterday, McCain hadn’t hosted a town-hall meeting since Aug. 20.

It was a pleasant surprise, then, to see McCain and Sarah Palin share a stage in Grand Rapids, Mich., for what’s become a rare event. There was, however, a catch.

As she took questions from voters for the first time since she was tapped as Senator John McCain’s running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin was asked here Wednesday about her “perceived lack of foreign policy experience.”

She responded with an invitation for people to play “stump the candidate” with her.

“As for foreign policy, you know, I think that I am prepared,” Ms. Palin said at an enthusiastic town-hall-style meeting she held alongside Mr. McCain. “And I know that on Jan. 20, if we are so blessed as to be sworn into office as your president and vice president, certainly we’ll be ready. I’ll be ready. I have that confidence. I have that readiness. And if you want specifics with specific policy, or countries, go ahead and you can ask me. You can even play stump the candidate, if you want to.”

But before anyone could take her up on the offer, Mr. McCain stepped in to praise Ms. Palin’s qualifications….

So, what was the catch? Unlike most town-hall events, which are open to the public, include diverse crowds, and no one needs an advance invitation, this event was for ticket-holders only. And the only way to get a ticket was through the local Republican Party, after an advance RSVP. No wonder Palin was prepared to play “stump the candidate” — it was a very friendly crowd that had no interest in testing her.

It doesn’t exactly sound like a vote of confidence in the candidates’ ability to answer tough questions, does it?

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.