Polls in late October showed Sen. Hillary Clinton comfortably leading the Democratic presidential field. For all his talk of "hope" and "change," Sen. Barack Obama was trailing Hillary by ten points in the most recent Iowa poll, and the "inevitability" argument was still on the side of the front-running former First Lady.
And then Tim Russert asked a simple question.
"Senator Clinton, Governor of New York Eliot Spitzer has proposed giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants," the NBC host said in an Oct. 30 Democratic debate at Philadelphia's Drexel University. "You told the Nashua, New Hampshire editorial board it makes a lot of sense. Why does it make a lot of sense to give an illegal immigrant a driver's license?"
Those three sentences -- 46 words -- arguably transformed the entire campaign. Clinton's initial answer was evasive, saying that Spitzer's plan was an attempt to "fill the vacuum" created by the failure of Congress to enact "comprehensive immigration reform."
Russert then asked the other candidates for a show of hands: "Does anyone here believe an illegal immigrant should not have a driver's license?" Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd was the only taker, saying that a driver's license is not a right, but a privilege, and one that should not be extended to people who are not here legally.
Hillary then attempted to clarify her stance: "I just want to add, I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do it."
This set off a back-and-forth between Clinton and Dodd, until Russert rephrased his original question: "Senator Clinton, I just want to make sure what I heard. Do you, the New York Senator Hillary Clinton, support the New York governor's plan to give illegal immigrants a driver's license?"
Again, Clinton's answer was, well, Clintonian. She accused Russert of playing "gotcha," said "George Bush has failed," and ended with another reference to the immigration reform that had been rejected by the Senate.
THE EPISODE -- a little more than three minutes long in the YouTube video clips that were viewed by tens of thousands -- was classic Russert.
A direct question, requiring a direct answer, is a nightmare for politicians engaged in the all-too-common game of blurring the distinctions on difficult issues. Pinning down Clinton on the illegal immigration issue, Russert employed a technique he'd mastered in more than 750 hours of Meet the Press broadcasts since 1991.
Russert had the longest tenure as MTP host during the six-decade history of the program. In the six years prior to Russert's arrival in the job, NBC had tried four different professional TV newsmen -- including Roger Mudd, Marvin Kalb, Garrick Utley and Chris Wallace -- to fill the host's chair. None succeeded like the ex-politico from Buffalo, New York.
The show, as befitted its name, had originated as a televised half-hour press conference, with a panel of journalists interrogating a political guest. Under Russert's tenure, the format was expanded to a full hour, with the host as the sole questioner.
At first, there was no indication of Russert's future emergence as the undisputed Sunday news-show king. MTP had been eclipsed in the ratings by David Brinkley's This Week on ABC, and the addition of Russert did not reverse that situation until after Brinkley's retirement in 1996.
What ultimately made Russert famous -- and his show such a ratings success, averaging some 4 million viewers weekly -- was his trademark technique of requiring guests to confront their own prior statements on controversial issues
He'd introduce a video clip of something the guest had previously said, roll tape, and ask his interviewees to defend, abjure or explain their remarks.
Such an approach required research. Russert, who had been Washington bureau chief for NBC before taking over the Sunday show, was the on-camera point man for a team of diligent behind-the-scenes researchers who helped prepare each broadcast.
As the show regained its No. 1 status and Russert gained a reputation as an aggressive interviewer, smart guests learned to prepare as diligently for a Meet the Press appearance as their host did.
Particularly in the case of political candidates, Russert's show was often a make-or-break moment.
RUSSERT WAS NOT without his critics. A Democrat born-and-bred, he'd spent eight years as a partisan operative for New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Gov. Mario Cuomo before passing through Washington's notorious revolving door into a job at NBC in 1984.
Like other Democratic operatives (including ABC's George Stephanopoulos and NBC's Chris Matthews) who have made similar moves, the ease with which Russert went from party hack to newsman was cited as evidence of the media's liberal bias.
Certainly, Republicans had no reason to consider Russert a sympathetic voice, although in later years he was often slammed by liberal bloggers and the left-wing "watchdogs" at Media Matters. Not even efforts at left-wing sites to enforce a respectful decorum for a fellow, recently departed Democrat could stop DailyKos diarist Beth Singleton from venting, "if Tim Russert is the pillar of journalism that he's being hailed as in all these gushing reports, then journalism is in even worse shape than we thought" and opining that Russert's "performance as moderator of the Democratic candidate debate will forever remain a sad embarrassment and one of the low points of television."
Less often criticized was how Russert cultivated his public persona as a blue-collar Regular Guy, with his sentimental tributes to his father ("Big Russ") and on-air salutes to the NFL's Buffalo Bills.
Such flaunting of his working-class roots was an effective publicity gimmick, a way of signaling to viewers that -- despite his multimillion-dollar salary and nearly 25 years as a fixture among the capital's media elite -- he wasn't really part of the inside-the-Beltway crowd.
His chummy chats with frequent Meet the Press guests, like Republican operative Mary Matalin and her reptilian spouse, James Carville, should have sent quite the opposite message. There was also a lot of insider chumminess in the tributes from his media colleagues after Russert died suddenly Friday from what doctors diagnosed, too late, as a coronary thrombosis.
Yet if Russert's Regular Guy image was in some sense calculated, it contained an element of authenticity that resonated with millions of viewers. TAS's W. James Antle III was in an airport Friday and noticed travelers gathered around TV screens watching coverage of the death of Russert, who "connected with people in a way that many of his more blow-dried colleagues didn't."
RUSSERT'S BLUE-COLLAR sensibility may explain why he, alone among the questioners in this year's Democratic presidential debates, chose to raise immigration as a major issue. An open-borders stance is almost de rigeur among the Washington elite, but is decisively rejected by working-class voters outside the Beltway.
On Oct. 30, Russert asked Clinton a straightforward question, got an evasive answer, and then returned to ask the same question again. Hillary never really recovered. By late November, American Research Group -- the same poll that had showed Clinton with a 10-point lead in Iowa prior to that fateful debate -- showed her two points behind Obama in Iowa, where he went on to a decisive win in the Jan. 3 caucus.
Was this, as Clinton charged, a case of Russert playing "gotcha"? Maybe. But he did, after all, get her good. As Russert liked to say, let's go to the tape: