DES MOINES — Emily Price wanted to gloat.
With her husband, Dave, at the wheel, she was riding alongside their toddler in the back seat of their Saturn SUV en route to Illinois for Christmas when Newt Gingrich’s spokeswoman called to confirm an upcoming interview. As a politics reporter at Des Moines’ CBS affiliate, KCCI, Emily had to bury her glee at the big “get” only days before the Iowa caucuses. Her husband, after all, is a top political reporter at WHO-TV, the Iowa capital’s NBC affiliate.
Love and politics, however, have a way of keeping the Prices together. “We were setting up the time and then she goes, ‘Is Dave sitting next to you?’ ” Emily recalled. She handed her husband — and rival — the phone so he could book his interview.
As candidates capitalize on the couple’s access to more than 100,000 households, the Prices are juggling how to compete and console, to be the best reporters and the best spouses they can be. And with the primary season upended by unusually influential debates and super-PAC ads, the two Iowa mavens who have been shadowing the candidates for a full year insist that the person-to-person venues provide the most valuable and decisive view of American politics.
Take former senator Rick Santorum, for instance, whom each of the Prices saw early and often in his poorly funded, seemingly quixotic Iowa travels.
“He was always here and what he did was more amplified because the others weren’t,” Dave said at a barbecue lunch on the busy Sunday afternoon before the caucuses.
The two reporters had been regulars at Santorum events — he a tall, Richie Cunningham motormouth in pinstripes, she a sunny, blond Floridian in colorful suits. They witnessed Santorum speaking in front of empty seats throughout the state, taking every last question at a VFW hall or a coffee shop and asking voters to fill out a form to learn more. Emily noted that the former Pennsylvania senator, whose dramatic rise has been the story of the caucuses’ final days, both showed up and followed up.
“A lot of people feel like, ‘Well, I signed that paper for him and said I would do it, so I’m not going to back down,’ ” Emily said. “It’s almost like a contract. Iowans are very faithful people.”
Both Prices are crucial to their respective stations’ political coverage. He’s a big deal at the state’s No. 2 station; she’s a rising star at a station that’s rated narrowly ahead of his. And since Iowa journalistic oracle David Yepsen has shuffled off to academia, the field is open for another quadrennial star to be the state’s man, or woman, to see.
Dave is a savvy analyst and a “living Rolodex,” in the words of his boss. He saw an opening for Santorum after witnessing the misfortunes of Santorum’s fellow conservatives, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and businessman Herman Cain.
“As he has gone up while Bachmann went down and Cain disappeared and Perry didn’t take hold, you could just feel people are thinking, ‘Oh, maybe this guy can win,’ ” Dave said.
Dave and Emily Price, University of Missouri graduates who met covering candidates, individually told colleagues that Santorum was the one to watch. Both endured derision. “People thought I was crazy five weeks ago,” Emily said. And the husband and wife never shared their analysis — or the blowback — with each other.
“I think it’s very common in the workplace today for couples to have conflicts,” said Emily’s boss, Dave Busiek, news director for KCCI. He cited spouses who were privy to all manner of competitive and privileged information that their other half could use, whether in media, politics, law or business. “It’s something that has to be managed,” he said.
In past presidential election cycles, the couple met the Obamas, the McCains, the Edwardses. The up-close-and-personal access went both ways, with the presidential contenders aggressively pursuing the Prices.
During Dave’s coverage of then-Sen. Obama’s health-care proposal, “I thought I had this one-on-one exclusive with him,” he recalled. “We finish, the door opens up and she and her crew walk in. I’m like, ‘WHAT?’ ”
The future president razzed the reporters, who he knew were a couple. “Obama actually gave us honeymoon advice,” Dave said over his barbecue plate.
“Not that kind of honeymoon advice!” Emily said with a laugh.
“About where to go!” Dave said.
Obama was very insistent in recommending Kauai, Hawaii, and was seconded by Michelle Obama. “When I talked to the McCains, they recommended Montenegro or something like that. Which was a little out of our range,” Dave said. In his many Iowa visits, former North Carolina senator John Edwards always made a point to tell Dave to tell Emily he said hello.
“Now, of course, I’m wondering why he was thinking of her that way,” Dave said, as Emily gave him a playful punch on his arm.
Dave’s boss is proud of the access Dave has gotten and maintains that his “crazy-competitive” reporter is never compromised by intimacy with the competition.
“He’s definitely not starry-eyed,” said WHO News Director Rod Peterson. The candidates will always try to endear themselves to the Prices, he said, given their role as stand-ins for interactions with so many Iowans, who may meet each candidate but can’t be at every event.
“That’s part of modern campaigning,” said Peterson, who noted that local network affiliates’ influence may have risen as print outlets face new challenges. The candidates’ outreach to reporters, according to Peterson, is “strategic, but it’s not disingenuous.”
Peterson also noted that since the arrival of Hayden, the Prices’ son, they understand issues that affect Iowa families in new ways, and the audiences are engaged in the couple’s role as parents. Each station sent crews to the hospital on the day of Hayden’s birth.
Naturally, the candidates have focused on Hayden, too. Dave forgot to turn off his phone when Anita Perry came to the station for an interview, and she saw the boy’s face on the screensaver. She asked about him, and the reporter conceded that he was worried about the boy hitting a lot — right in the face. Especially Emily’s face. It was troubling to the first-time dad.
A few days later, he found a message from the first lady of Texas in his voice mail. “She said, ‘Hey, I’m not trying to get in your personal business, but after I was talking to you, I was thinking about what we had said.’ ” She said she had shared Hayden’s hitting problem with a speech therapist, who explained it as a phase related to the boy’s frustration in communicating.
“And that’s what other people wound up telling us, too,” Emily said.
“When I called back, I hear, ‘Hello?’ Dave recalled. “And, you know, with that Southern accent, and I say, ‘Is this the first lady?’ And she says, ‘Is this my favorite area code in the country right now?’ ”
“I like that ‘right now,’ ” Emily noted. “Because next week it’ll be South Carolina.”
Dave’s strength is “creative storytelling,” according to his news director. That can come in the form of gimmickry at times: He dressed in a hoodie and a plaid shirt to hold up a sign on a downtown corner and see how the down-and-out get treated; he did a story on highly skilled unemployed Iowans and posted their résumés on his blog; he manned a “Cast Your Kernel” tent at the state fair, so Iowans could drop a corn kernel in jars with candidates’ names. A frequent question was: “Where’s none of the above?”
There have been times when Dave bested Emily in breaking actual news, for instance, when Cain came to town and fumbled through some responses during one-on-one questioning with Dave, after women accused the candidate of harassment and dalliances.
If he knows he’s scored a big one, he has this just-understated grin,” said Erin Kiernan, a WHO anchor/reporter who once worked at KCCI with Emily. “He’s not one of those people who is doing a fist pump or high-fiving.”
And the advantage Dave has earned is only logical. He is 41 years old to her 31, and he has more experience in the business. In his so-called spare time, he is slaving over an unsold manuscript about this year’s extraordinarily up-and-down race, and has logged interviews with party chairmen in each of the state’s 99 counties.
For this election, Emily revived a format that played to her strengths: Bring each candidate to the home of an undecided voter and guide the conversation so that unusual insights — not responses to trending topics — would emerge.
That suited her boss just fine. He knew what Emily could do with a story, such as the indelible one that led the station’s Web site in page views. As she reported, an elderly couple who had been hurt in a traffic accident held hands in the intensive-care unit, and the husband’s death was not immediately detected because his wife’s pulse was registering on his cardiogram. They died within an hour of each other.
On political coverage, “I didn’t want her to just follow the candidates around,” Busiek said. “It’s been very hard to get on their schedules this time, way harder than it has been in the past.” He wanted the time the candidates spent with Emily to be unusual and memorable.
Right away, the results were telling. Texas Rep. Ron Paul’s camp gave the request a flat no. Amid the last weeks’ frenzy, Perry showed up at the voter’s home and stayed for much longer at the table than was planned.
Santorum did, too, and made sure he wasn’t served any caffeine, which he said his body can no longer tolerate.
Romney agreed, delayed and rejiggered formats for a more formal interview.
Gingrich canceled because of a sudden illness, in the moments after his tearful on-stage talk Friday. “What’s wrong,” Emily asked his spokeswoman. “Just ask Dave,” came the reply.
“Bachmann seemed the most ready,” Emily said. “She came with a centerpiece for the table, a big ol’ pastry and some caramel corn.” The candidate begged off on a question about what it was like to be the only woman in the race, until Emily intervened and pressed for an answer.
“She said, ‘Um, you know, I grew up with three brothers and that really toughens you up. And you don’t complain.’ ”
Neither of the Prices is allowing any complaints about life in this final frenzy. They spend too much time for their liking away from their son, who runs around the house yelling “Papa! Papa! Papa!” as soon as the newscast theme music starts playing.
The caucuses will decide the state of play for the nominating season’s next stage, but Emily is going to New Hampshire and Dave is staying in Iowa. Often they don’t tell each other the who, what and where of a story, but this assignment tripped their need-to-know criteria.
It underscored what Dave mentioned several times would be his dream: to host a show with Emily.
“Sometimes I think it would be fun to work in tandem instead of trying to outmaneuver her or whatever,” he said. Emily’s boss and Dave’s boss both admitted that the thought had crossed their minds. The couple joke about the Ron Burgundy-Veronica Corningstone comparison, given that they had just watched “Anchorman” in a hotel together and laughed the whole way through.
Competition, secrecy, separation — it just gets to be a drag, they agreed.
Dave, unpracticed in the on-the-record, from-the-heart response he and his wife elicit from candidates, expressed it in a way that would go viral, if he were the candidate.
“In the end,” he said, “it’s just not that fun to beat your wife.”