For the Candidates, Not Just Any Brand Of Soapbox Will Do

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 13, 2007

Rudy Giuliani has appeared on only one Sunday talk show this year: "Fox News Sunday."

Fred Thompson has made eight television appearances in 2007, all on Fox News, six of them sit-downs with Sean Hannity, who sometimes campaigns for GOP candidates.

Mitt Romney has chatted on Fox 13 times this year, including yesterday's appearance in Iowa on "Fox News Sunday," while granting one other Sunday interview, to ABC's "This Week."

The leading Democratic presidential candidates present a mirror image, with Hillary Clinton and John Edwards granting no interviews to Fox since January, and Edwards now bashing Rupert Murdoch's network as unfair to his party.

To a striking degree, the candidates are picking their spots, carefully choosing which media operations they will court and which they will ignore. That leaves some of them preaching to the political choir, but also shields them from especially aggressive questioning.

The new media order has been spawned by a 500-channel universe and a polarized climate in which news organizations are increasingly viewed, fairly or unfairly, as leaning to one side or the other. And with a cornucopia of choices, politicians tend to gravitate toward what they see as friendly arenas.

"We've tried to get every one of them," says Bob Schieffer, host of CBS's "Face the Nation." "We've tried Giuliani over and over again. We've tried Romney." After Romney's camp initiated an off-the-record phone conversation with the candidate, Schieffer says, an aide invited him to an off-the-record picnic in New Hampshire.

"We're sort of in the on-the-record business here," Schieffer wrote back. The Romney camp did float the possibility of an interview for yesterday, but insisted that Schieffer travel to Iowa in the wake of Saturday's straw poll, which would have better spotlighted Romney's victory. Schieffer declined.

The Democratic candidates, meanwhile, have refused to debate on Fox News, even for an event co-sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus. In the last nine days, however, they were happy to face off before liberal bloggers at a convention staged by the Web site Daily Kos; at an event co-sponsored by Logo, a gay-themed network operated by MTV; and at an MSNBC debate moderated by Keith Olbermann, one of President Bush's fiercest critics.

"Republicans like Fox because it plays to their primary voting constituency, and Democrats like to boycott Fox because it brings cheap applause from their primary voting constituency," says Mike Murphy, a GOP strategist and occasional panelist on NBC's "Meet the Press." "The Democrats make a mistake by boycotting Fox, because they're going to need red states to win. And Fred Thompson makes a mistake by communicating only through the medium of Sean Hannity."

Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist, says the rise of the Internet means that "there is much less of a premium on traditional outlets. In the past, Sunday shows were a great way to connect with the activist crowd and show that you're a credible candidate. Now you can do it through a blog, a Web chat, putting up your own YouTube ad."

With the accelerated primary schedule, he says, "people are being a little more cautious because they recognize that a small mistake on a Tim Russert show or a George Stephanopoulos show can become a two-week story."

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