Monday, December 24, 2007

"Dashing Through the Snow, Craving News Along the Way"

Howard Kurtz (WaPo):
DES MOINES -- The photographers started yelling as Hillary Clinton boarded the helicopter.
She was kicking off a week-long aerial tour of this crucial, must-have, make-or-break state, but a tall man in a cowboy hat behind her was blocking the all-important shot as she made her way inside. Sensing trouble, Clinton popped her head back out the copter door and gave a thumbs-up, prompting cheers from the camera crowd.

A day later, Barack Obama's staff had set up a photo op as his bus pulled up to a community center in the Iowa town of Cherokee. But the Illinois senator, who has a certain disdain for political ritual, just walked in the door without waving or acknowledging the cameras -- eliciting groans from the TV crews.

Covering the Iowa caucuses means long hours of tedium in pursuit of fleeting moments: the right visual, the sharp comment, the flash of emotion. Every campaign stop -- Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, Davenport -- seems to be two hours from every other stop, requiring long drives across the flat, frozen landscape.

With the state's caucuses set for Jan. 3, much of the media mob is here, and their sheer numbers have relegated New Hampshire's primary, a mere five days later, to secondary status. Most East Coast journalists prefer New Hampshire -- easier to fly to, key towns closer together -- and there is a shared sense among political operatives and their chroniclers of being stranded in the heartland for the holidays. At a wine-soaked dinner with Clinton aides and two dozen journalists at the Centro restaurant here, the talk was as much about kids left home and presents unbought as about polls and tactics.

Every voter I spoke to at political events here was undecided, even though they had seen their favorite candidates two or three times. That means much of what has been written about Iowa could turn out to be screamingly wrong, much as predictions of Howard Dean's victory four years ago melted away.

The challenge for journalists on the trail is that the candidates say the same things over and over again, and their constant presence loses its novelty. Even a former president of the United States becomes old hat. That's why Bill Clinton teamed up last week with Magic Johnson, the better to attract TV cameras. And it worked: The Bill/Magic photo wound up on the New York Times front page and warranted a piece in The Washington Post's Style section.

Little wonder, then, that so many contenders now import celebrities to draw media attention. Obama has Oprah, of course; John Edwards has Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt; and Mike Huckabee has Chuck Norris. It's a gimmick, but it works.

There is no bus anymore in presidential politics. Yes, some of the candidates have been rolling out press buses or vans, but in the "Boys on the Bus" sense, there is no single bubble in which the journalistic pack travels. Even the heavily covered Clinton campaign has only a half-dozen national correspondents who tag along day after day, far fewer than similar campaigns in the past.

This is in part because news organizations, especially the broadcast networks, have cut back on such expensive travel for their front-line troops. And it's in part because many journalists fear the Stockholm syndrome of being embedded with the same unit for weeks on end. The result is a Hertz campaign, in which reporters in rental cars chase after multiple candidates.

A down-in-the-snow visit here yields a different picture of the campaign than the shards that make their way onto television screens and into print. And nowhere was that on clearer display than in successive appearances by Clinton and Obama.

From the moment Clinton took the hand-held mike at a barn in Johnston -- a converted barn in the middle of a subdivision, that is -- reporters were nudging each other about the transformation that had taken place. Gone was the steely, controlled figure who often recited her talking points without slurring a syllable. In its place was a humbler woman speaking in softer, even intimate tones, about childhood foibles and the meaning of friendship.

In front of a huge banner -- "Working for Change, Working for You" -- friends and constituents of the New York senator attested to her warmer side. Some of the tales were moving, especially that of Shannon Mallozzi, a self-described "desperate mother" who secured Clinton's help in hospitalizing her brain-damaged daughter.

"My perception of her was probably a media-cultivated one," Mallozzi said. "I thought she was a bit remote."

With 11 cameras rolling, Clinton described how she took off her thick glasses in school "so boys would notice me," and how her childhood friend Betsy Ebeling -- also in attendance -- would guide her and point out the cute ones. When Clinton talked about the war, it was to recall a captain she had met at Walter Reed who lost his arm and had suffered a brain injury.

Some journalists reacted with a dose of cynicism. One said Clinton had reinvented herself as Mother Teresa. Another said it was pretty late in the game for such an effort. The kinder, gentler approach generated a smattering of stories -- including a New York Times piece headlined "After Long Delay, Clinton Embarks on a Likability Tour" -- and some cable chat. But there was more talk about the tactic than what she had actually said.

If Clinton has a likability problem, Obama is at the opposite end of the scale -- a man of considerable charm and ease who seems to inspire his supporters. His challenge is to prove that a newcomer three years removed from the Illinois legislature is ready to be president.

At a foreign policy forum staged at an airport hotel, Obama barely cracked a smile or paused for a joke. The banner du jour read "Judgment to Lead," with five American flags arrayed behind the candidate.

The point was for him to be validated by five national security heavyweights, including Clinton administration veterans Tony Lake and Susan Rice. Lake was the most openly partisan, saying he was sick of political consultants -- even as Obama's consultant, David Axelrod, sat outside the room -- and preferred the "politics of authenticity" to the "politics of artificiality." Rice, an African American, made a not-so-veiled reference to Obama's race, saying he "embodies the many different strands of our national heritage."

From a lectern, Obama read a short speech in a monotone, and as he fielded audience questions, he assumed the role of a stern professor. Gliding confidently from Iraq to Iran, from Israel to China to Darfur, he also noted that he had spent three years on the Foreign Relations Committee and that his father was from Kenya.

"That is the experience I will bring to the office, not the mind-set of fear we've been fed since 9/11," he said. Unlike Clinton, with her tales of schoolboy flirtations, Obama had something different to prove. But he broke no new ground, and the event got little more than brief mentions in a handful of newspaper stories.

There was another reason why Clinton and Obama barely made a ripple in the news cycle: They didn't mention each other's names. Journalists thrive on attack politics, their copy filled with jabs and counterpunches as a race nears its climax. And on these December days in the cold-weather contest that is Iowa, there were none to be had.

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