New Hampshire Under Siege

Reporting the Debate

Stick seven Dems in a room together and what do you get? Other than yawns, that is.

By 1.23.04

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MANCHESTER -- Arriving two hours early to the Democratic presidential debate, I still had to park a couple football fields away from the auditorium at Saint Anselm College, where the candidates had gathered for the final verbal joust before next Tuesday's primary. As soon as I stepped out of the car I could hear seven candidates' worth of rallies in the distance: drums beating, chants, whoops, and hollers.

The debate itself was a humdrum affair. None of the candidates strayed far from his stump speech. Howard Dean didn't have another breakdown. Skittish about being perceived as mudslingers after Iowa, no one stuck it to anyone else. As far as I could tell, the only newsworthy announcements were the Rev. Al Sharpton's pledge to make America a "super-helper" as well as a "superpower" and Dennis Kucinich's promise to reform education by stopping "this incessant direction of trying to make our nation of test-takers."

I watched the debate with a couple hundred other members of the press in a huge room adjacent to the one in which the debate was held. I was surprised to see that no one around me was paying much attention to the large television screens. Instead they were surfing the Internet with the DSL connections provided to every table, or chatting on their cell phones. The guy next to me spent the entire debate tooling around Playboy's website.

Every few minutes a member of the Saint Anselm track team came racing in, passing off ad hoc press releases from the campaigns. Volunteers would then make copies and pass them along to the media. When Wesley Clark denied he had "guaranteed" no terrorist attacks, for example, I had a press release from the Joe Lieberman camp in my hand within five minutes. "For the Record," the press release said. "What Clark Said Exactly." When Kerry warned that "special interests" run the country, a Dean press release came through, listing all the special interests Kerry was in bed with.

No one seemed to pay much attention to the flurry of paper coming from the makeshift offices of these nominally environmentalist candidates. The girl next to me lifted one release up to her mouth without looking at it and unceremoniously spit her gum on it.

WHENEVER THINGS GET BORING in New Hampshire lately, however, Lyndon LaRouche supporters seem to be on hand to mix things up. Considering all the hoops I had to jump through to get my press pass, I have no idea how LaRouche's dirty hippie squad was able to get in, but they did, and they were not silent. LaRouchites began dropping their own press releases in front of reporters.

A young man in a spacesuit silver coat ran towards me as the police hustled behind him. He handed me a 50-page magazine entitled "Children of Satan II: The Beast-Men."

"Don't confuse it with 'Children of Satan I,'" he pleaded, as the cops caught up to him.

"How could I?" I asked. "I have a signed copy."

When the debate ended everyone fled en masse. I followed the exodus to the main event: the so-called spin room, where candidates and their surrogates come out to give interviews and attempt to whirl the media in their favor. When any candidate walked into the room, approximately 400 people with cameras and notebooks surrounded him.

Kerry and Dean didn't bother to show up. In Kerry's corner of the room, a staffer rolled out a veteran who had lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam to spend 20 minutes or so being photographed with a Kerry button on and badmouthing the good senator's opponents. Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi made the rounds for his candidate, looking tired and uncomfortable.

Most candidates stuck around for a few minutes, made their way down television row to peddle their messages and then headed for the door. That is, except for Al Sharpton, who disrupted the whole room by leading his sizable entourage on a free-flowing, erratic path from one side of the room to the other.

The pundits were out in force as well. A huge crowd formed around Democratic strategist and Crossfire co-host Paul Begala, who was pontificating on his favorite topic: Bill Clinton. "Nobody's in Clinton's league as a politician" Begala said. "Nobody. Clinton was a force of nature.… Any other questions?"

Three people asked in unison, "Who are you?"

Begala looked at them as if they were crazy or, worse, rural. In the spin room, the rule is: Ask questions first, take names later. After all, if there's a crowd, the person in the center must be important. And when the politicians and pundits had all gone, reporters interviewed each other as if the rest of the world had let them down.

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