Friday, November 30, 2007

"The Candidate's 'Catch Me if You Can'"

Howard Kurtz (WaPo):
CONCORD, N.H. -- ABC correspondent Kate Snow was ready to push through the crowd and ask Hillary Clinton a question until an aide blocked the path of Snow's sound man as he aimed his boom mike in the senator's direction.

"Sorry, we've gotta go," the woman said, though it was clear that Clinton would be shaking hands for some time.
Moments later, as the Democratic presidential candidate was mobbed by well-wishers, Boston television reporter Joe Battenfeld managed to shout a question -- a meaningless question, truth be told -- about whether she needed to win both Iowa and New Hampshire. Clinton was defiantly bland in response, as if determined that her comments not be used.

"Oh, I don't think about it like that. I'm just thrilled to be competing in Iowa and New Hampshire. . . . There's something very special about the New Hampshire primary. . . . I take nothing for granted. . . . We have wonderful candidates running."

Such is life spent trailing the Clinton juggernaut, where reporters can generally get close enough to watch but no further, as if separated from the candidate by an invisible sheet of glass.

National correspondents are increasingly frustrated by a lack of access to Clinton. They spend much of their time in rental cars chasing her from one event to the next, because the campaign usually provides no press bus or van. Life on the bus means journalists don't have to worry about luggage or directions or getting left behind, since they are part of the official motorcade. News organizations foot the bill for such transportation, but campaigns have to staff and coordinate the buses -- and deal with the constant presence of their chroniclers.

With rare exceptions -- John McCain chats endlessly with reporters aboard his bus -- leading presidential candidates take a wary approach to the press, doling out access in carefully limited increments. Journalists sometimes question whether it is worth the time and energy to trail politicians who rarely engage them. In this regard, Clinton differs only in her degree of discipline, honed during eight years of often testy media relations in her husband's White House.

Clinton blames an overtaxed schedule for the arm's-length approach, but something more fundamental is at work here. She, like her rivals, wants to deliver a daily message, usually framed around some policy prescription, while reporters want to ask her about the latest polls, tactics or blast from Barack Obama or John Edwards. And answering questions off the cuff always risks the possibility of a blunder, as when Clinton told NBC's Andrea Mitchell during the 1992 campaign that she had chosen to pursue a career rather than stay home and "bake cookies."

At the same time, much of what Clinton wants to communicate -- the nuances of her health-care plan, for instance -- doesn't fit the media's cramped definition of news.

Clinton did a phone interview this week with the Chicago Tribune and a previously scheduled feature interview with The Washington Post, which included a question on her husband's claim that he had opposed the Iraq war from the beginning. But such opportunities are relatively rare. Obama, for his part, held a conference call with reporters Wednesday.

Clinton aides say they try to stage a "press avail," or brief news conference, every five or six days, but they acknowledge the schedule often slips. (Obama is also on a weekly schedule; Edwards, third in the national polls, is more accessible.) The result is little red meat for the press pack. In fact, much of the chatter among the reporters is about MapQuest and GPS devices and Hertz's NeverLost technology as they trade tips on how to track their constantly moving quarry.

Earlier this month, Snow ignored the speed limit as she chased Clinton from a Manchester diner to a Concord state office where the candidate was filing to run in the primary. "I parked seven blocks away," Snow says. "I ran up the street in my high-heel boots. I got there out of breath, and the Secret Service stopped me and said, 'You can't come in.' "

Snow and other late-arriving reporters talked their way in through the back door, but the room was so packed with supporters that her crew couldn't get near the former first lady, whose news conference was almost over. "We're constantly playing catch-up," Snow says.

Newsweek's Andrew Romano says the press didn't even get to take the tour when Clinton visited a Las Vegas sheet-metal factory. "The way we were herded into a small area to watch her walk into a room and meet with union officials just seemed slightly absurd," he says. When a colleague asked the staff for a chance to question Clinton, "they just kind of laughed it off."

My day-long pursuit of the senator on Monday was typical. She arrived more than an hour late, from Iowa, at a 19th-century Victorian mansion here and spoke for all of nine minutes about the importance of health care. With half a dozen cameras rolling, Clinton accepted the endorsement of pediatrician Susan Lynch, wife of the state's Democratic governor, John Lynch.

When Clinton stepped away from the microphones, Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising" began blaring from the speakers, which effectively drowned out any attempted queries from the journalists sprinkled throughout the room. Battenfeld, the Boston reporter, launched his horse-race question during a brief lull between songs.

"It's kind of an art form," he said afterward. "I would have asked her about Obama, but I figured she would have turned and run."

While candidates operate in something of a bubble, their headquarters staff conducts an outside game with tougher language, and Clinton is no exception. As reporters awaited her arrival here, an e-mail arrived by BlackBerry, sparked by a Washington Post report on Obama using a political action committee to make donations to officials in early primary states. "It was surprising to learn that he has been using his PAC in a manner that appears to be inconsistent with the prevailing election laws," the Clinton release said.

After the Concord event, Clinton retreated to a previously scheduled taping with Katie Couric, her only sustained encounter that day with the national media. The CBS anchor asked how disappointed she would be if she isn't the nominee. "Well, it will be me," Clinton said. When Couric pressed, Clinton insisted -- not terribly convincingly -- that she hadn't even considered the possibility she could lose.

Reporters, meanwhile, were making their way along unmarked back roads, past moose crossings and flocks of geese, to find a home on an isolated cul-de-sac in Goffstown. There, Judy Lanza, a nurse, and her husband, Joe, a retired police officer, hosted Clinton in a small kitchen adorned with pumpkins, apple baskets, a cookie jar and a straw doll affixed to the wall.

For more than an hour, 30 journalists watched from the small, darkened living room as Clinton chatted, awkwardly at first, with the five preselected guests. Her rhetoric against health insurance companies was harsher than might have been expected. They give patients the "runaround," deny care, "slow-walk" the payment of bills, she declared. "This is all part of their business model. This is how they make money. . . . The small-business health-care market is really rigged."

From there, Clinton drifted into special education, meetings she had as first lady on religious tolerance, how she was "deeply involved" in the Northern Ireland peace process, and her plans for a "post-Kyoto agreement" on global warming. But although the meeting was staged for the assembled journalists, there was no chance for follow-up, and the event received virtually no coverage.

As Clinton made her way to the door, she observed: "All this good food -- can we feed the press?" But the press was feeling undernourished.

Campaigns often brush off national correspondents in favor of local journalists, who tend to be less critical. Clinton did hold an off-the-record session with New Hampshire reporters and spoke to an Exeter radio station on Monday. But she paid a price for her limited interaction with reporters on the 6 p.m. newscast of WMUR-TV, the state's only network affiliate.

Obama, in New Hampshire that day, was shown talking to one of the station's reporters about Oprah Winfrey's decision to campaign for him. Edwards, also in New Hampshire, was seen talking to reporters about the need for a candidate who "tells the truth." But Clinton's endorsement by the governor's wife warranted only a brief mention, with no sound bite from the candidate.

Her last major event was a potluck dinner at a cavernous union hall in the town of Brentwood. But only a handful of reporters attended and I arrived late, driving down unlighted streets in a heavy rain as confused Clinton aides kept giving me the wrong directions.

The candidate spent half an hour signing campaign posters and posing for pictures, and I persuaded her tired-looking staff to grant me a single question as she made her way out. The question: Wouldn't providing more media access help get her message out?

"We try to balance what we do every day," Clinton said. "I'm trying to reach as many voters as possible one-on-one" while also dealing with the local press, "which has a very big role to play," and making time for occasional interviews with national news outlets. "It seems I have mushrooming demands," she said. "The balancing is really intense."

With that, she was off to a waiting plane to South Carolina, while reporters headed for commercial flights to follow her there.

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