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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Straight Talk Express: Talking

Rerouting McCain's BusFrustrations Lead Campaign To Limit Reporters' Access
By Howard KurtzWashington Post Staff WriterMonday, August 4, 2008;


While the traveling press corps was shipped off to a barbecue restaurant here, John McCain charmed his way through an interview with a local TV reporter. Surae Chinn of KCTV posed such less-than-penetrating questions as "How important is Missouri?" and "Have you chosen a running mate?" and -- addressing the candidate's wife, Cindy -- "How do you make your marriage work?"

Moments later, though, the Republican candidate seemed to grow annoyed with the Kansas City Star's Steve Kraske, who pressed him on his recent comment that "nothing is off the table" when it comes to strengthening Social Security.

When Kraske said that McCain presumably wasn't ruling out a payroll tax hike, McCain interrupted: "That's presuming wrong." When the reporter rephrased the question, McCain said: "If you want to keep asking me over and over again, you're welcome to."

It was a brief moment of friction that highlighted how the captain of the Straight Talk Express is having a bumpier ride with journalists than when he ran for president eight years ago. The popular image of the campaign -- McCain bantering with national journalists in the back of his bus -- has, in reality, all but vanished. The traveling press is now routinely stiffed in favor of five-minute sit-downs with local reporters.

At the same time, the Arizona senator is having trouble making news, or at least news that advances his campaign's goals, and when he does it is often reacting to the media hurricane that surrounds Barack Obama.

In 2000, when top news executives were clamoring for a chance to ride the fabled bus, McCain would spend hours talking to reporters who would write one story a day. "Now, with each bus trip, everyone's filing a blog report, every little thing is picked up and off it goes," says Slate correspondent John Dickerson. "It certainly takes him off message."

McCain is "pained" at all but ending the sessions, says spokeswoman Nicolle Wallace, a former Bush White House communications director, but "we have to find a balance. He won the primary essentially on a bus with the press. . . . He's intensely loyal to the back-and-forth with the press. It's who he is. It will always be part of our mix."

It wasn't part of the mix last week. National correspondents traveling with the candidate did not get to ask McCain a question for four days, and grew angry when a media availability was scheduled for late afternoon Friday in Panama City, Fla. -- too late to do them much good and requiring extra flights for those who had planned to head home for the weekend.

While the front of McCain's plane was reconfigured with a couch and two captain's chairs to allow for easy conversation, journalists say he has invited them up only once, on a trip to Colombia. On the ground, his availability is sometimes limited to a quick gaggle with a small group of pool reporters.

Obama doesn't mingle much with his press corps either -- he made an exception on his recent world tour -- but that has never been a core part of his strategy.

McCain is less engaging as a scripted candidate. But his strategists are convinced that the perpetual access was eroding their ability to drive a message, forcing the candidate to play on the media's turf by responding to flap-of-the-day questions, such as top adviser Carly Fiorina's lament that many health plans cover Viagra but not birth control.

But the aides say McCain would get hammered by the press if they restricted access even further, given his repeated insistence that such a move would destroy his credibility.

While many problems are of McCain's own making, it often seems that he can't catch a break. He stood beside an oil pump in a dusty Bakersfield, Calif., field last week, trying to dramatize his support for offshore drilling while painting Obama as "the Doctor No of America's energy future."

But the clip that played on ABC's "World News" and the cable networks was of McCain, who has a history of skin cancer, explaining to reporters why a mole had been removed from his face.

Republican strategists not affiliated with McCain say his campaign seems to lurch from one tactic to the next and has been largely devoid of new ideas that might draw sustained coverage.

"The McCain campaign's challenge in this Obama environment is to be consistent and drive a daily message for more than two days in a row," says Scott Reed, who managed the 1996 presidential campaign of another septuagenarian senator, Bob Dole.

Mark McKinnon, a McCain adviser who left the campaign after the primaries, says the media are "overhyping" Obama, but that things will even out by the fall.

Asked if McCain should spend so much time responding to Obama, thus letting him set the story line, McKinnon says: "It's hard not to react when there's this blazing comet across the sky."

If that has eclipsed the Republican's campaign, the staging of McCain's events hasn't helped.

When Obama was in Israel, McCain was awkwardly chatting up shoppers in the cheese aisle of a Bethlehem, Pa., supermarket, where at one point several jars of applesauce came tumbling off a shelf. When Obama was drawing a huge crowd in Berlin, McCain was visiting Schmidt's Sausage Haus in Columbus, Ohio, placing an order of chocolate cream puffs to go.

Beyond the stagecraft, there is a sameness to McCain's schedule that works against breaking into the news cycle: town hall meeting, local interviews, fundraiser.

McCain is clearly energized by the town halls. In Racine, Wis., he was asked about taxes, college aid and whether Brett Favre should leave the Green Bay Packers. McCain's answers were crisp and forceful, but he said nothing he hasn't said dozens of times -- and therefore made no news.
Such generally friendly questions are now deemed preferable to responding to reporters. After touring a tractor factory Wednesday in Aurora, Colo., McCain kept walking when Associated Press correspondent Beth Fouhy shouted a question at him about the indictment of Republican Sen. Ted Stevens. The press corps had no chance to get a comment on his controversial ad likening Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.

On Thursday in Wisconsin, the reporters were itching to ask about the campaign's accusation that Obama was "playing the race card" by suggesting that McCain was trying to marginalize him as someone who didn't look like other presidents on dollar bills. When CNN's John King was interviewing the senator for a profile to run before the Republican convention -- and raised the race-card flap at the end -- aides tried to cut him off. McCain gave a 10-second answer and ended the interview with a quick handshake as King tried to follow up. The aides later chastised King for raising a subject that was not part of the agreed-upon agenda.

On the bus ride to the airport, four Milwaukee journalists were invited on the Straight Talk, in keeping with the new policy of generally reserving such trips for local reporters. This time, Fouhy asked the local AP scribe on that bus to question McCain about the race charge, and made sure the senator's defense of the charge hit the national wire.

During the subsequent flight to Orlando, McCain remained in the front cabin, which was cordoned off by a curtain. The only journalist ushered into his presence was a writer for Marie Claire magazine.

In the old days, reporters would have had hours to chew over the latest controversy, and plenty of other subjects, with McCain. But for a campaign struggling to regain control of its message, the old days are definitely gone.

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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