Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's decision to opt out of all but a handful of appearances with his opponents this fall means an influential Iowa audience will lose the chance to judge him alongside his rivals next month.
Obama plans to skip AARP's Sept. 20 forum in Davenport, where New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson will address about 2,400 Iowa seniors and a national public television audience.
The decision to not attend the AARP event, aimed at issues important to people 50 and older, could nag at the Illinois senator, some Democrat activists and political observers said. AARP is a national association formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons.
"I understand what he's trying to do, and I guess I'll cut him some slack," said undecided Iowa City Democrat Anne Tanner, who is 68. "But the audience skews older in Iowa, and I don't think a lot of them are going to understand."
Obama said last week he would limit his attendance at group events sponsored by interest groups and Democratic Party organizations in states hoping to grab a piece of the early nominating spotlight. Iowa holds first-in-the-nation caucuses.
The number of events threatened to take Obama off his own game plan, his national campaign manager David Plouffe said.
"Otherwise, our schedule would be dictated by dozens and dozens of forums and debates, and we think the most important part of this process is individual interaction with voters," Plouffe said. "We benefit greatly when we're out there meeting with voters at our own events."
Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd also declined the invitation for the AARP event, which conflicted with a previously scheduled event.
Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden had not accepted the invitation, but was considering attending the Sept. 20 forum, to be held at Davenport's Adler Theater and broadcast nationwide on PBS.
Obama has participated in all of the national debates, including four that were televised nationally and three aimed at specific topics, including labor, gay rights and minority issues. He has also attended almost 20 multi-candidate events around the country, including his first in Iowa last week.
Obama, who has campaigned heavily in Iowa, attended two labor forums in eastern and northern Iowa and participated in Sunday's nationally televised debate in Des Moines.
Obama also has skipped some events in Iowa and elsewhere that would have put him on the same stage as his opponents, including the Iowa Democratic Party's annual summer banquet in June.
That event drew five candidates and an audience of 1,000 of Iowa's most influential party leaders.
Obama does not plan to attend a candidate forum Monday in Cedar Rapids to discuss fighting cancer. The forum, hosted by Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong's Livestrong Foundation, will include Clinton, Edwards, Richardson and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich. A Republican event Tuesday will include Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
The AARP forum is expected to focus on issues such as health care and retirement security, top concerns for Iowa's 50-and-older crowd.
That group also has carried disproportionate clout in recent caucuses, according to Iowa Democratic Party statistics.
In 2004, 64 percent of the people who participated in the Democratic presidential caucuses were 50 or older. In 2000, the figure was 63 percent.
Plouffe said Obama and his campaign staff had met with thousands of Iowa seniors and that he didn't think they would reject Obama for his decision.
Obama's campaign aides have said they want to expand the number of people who participate in the caucuses, a challenge given the commitment required to go out on a winter night.
Plouffe said that Obama is courting older, first-time caucusgoers, as well as younger ones.
"I think it's not accurate to say all the growth in caucus turnout is going to be from younger voters," Plouffe said.
Obama plans to attend the remaining five party-sponsored debates this fall and winter, another aimed at Latino issues and two more in Iowa this winter, including The Des Moines Register's debate.
Iowa State University political science professor Dianne Bystrom said she would have thought Obama would have made an exception for the AARP forum.
"He may not think that's his political base," said Bystrom, whose expertise includes debate strategy. "But it's the older voters that go to the caucuses, and I think he's really passing up an opportunity to speak to those voters."