The Candidate's 'Catch Me if You Can'

"We're constantly playing catch-up," one journalist says of Hillary Clinton, who can be less than accommodating when it comes to talking to reporters. (By Cheryl Senter -- Associated Press)

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 30, 2007

CONCORD, N.H. -- ABC correspondent Kate Snow was ready to push through the crowd and ask Hillary Clinton a question until an aide blocked the path of Snow's sound man as he aimed his boom mike in the senator's direction.

"Sorry, we've gotta go," the woman said, though it was clear that Clinton would be shaking hands for some time.

Moments later, as the Democratic presidential candidate was mobbed by well-wishers, Boston television reporter Joe Battenfeld managed to shout a question -- a meaningless question, truth be told -- about whether she needed to win both Iowa and New Hampshire. Clinton was defiantly bland in response, as if determined that her comments not be used.

"Oh, I don't think about it like that. I'm just thrilled to be competing in Iowa and New Hampshire. . . . There's something very special about the New Hampshire primary. . . . I take nothing for granted. . . . We have wonderful candidates running."

Such is life spent trailing the Clinton juggernaut, where reporters can generally get close enough to watch but no further, as if separated from the candidate by an invisible sheet of glass.

National correspondents are increasingly frustrated by a lack of access to Clinton. They spend much of their time in rental cars chasing her from one event to the next, because the campaign usually provides no press bus or van. Life on the bus means journalists don't have to worry about luggage or directions or getting left behind, since they are part of the official motorcade. News organizations foot the bill for such transportation, but campaigns have to staff and coordinate the buses -- and deal with the constant presence of their chroniclers.

With rare exceptions -- John McCain chats endlessly with reporters aboard his bus -- leading presidential candidates take a wary approach to the press, doling out access in carefully limited increments. Journalists sometimes question whether it is worth the time and energy to trail politicians who rarely engage them. In this regard, Clinton differs only in her degree of discipline, honed during eight years of often testy media relations in her husband's White House.

Clinton blames an overtaxed schedule for the arm's-length approach, but something more fundamental is at work here. She, like her rivals, wants to deliver a daily message, usually framed around some policy prescription, while reporters want to ask her about the latest polls, tactics or blast from Barack Obama or John Edwards. And answering questions off the cuff always risks the possibility of a blunder, as when Clinton told NBC's Andrea Mitchell during the 1992 campaign that she had chosen to pursue a career rather than stay home and "bake cookies."

At the same time, much of what Clinton wants to communicate -- the nuances of her health-care plan, for instance -- doesn't fit the media's cramped definition of news.

Clinton did a phone interview this week with the Chicago Tribune and a previously scheduled feature interview with The Washington Post, which included a question on her husband's claim that he had opposed the Iraq war from the beginning. But such opportunities are relatively rare. Obama, for his part, held a conference call with reporters Wednesday.

Clinton aides say they try to stage a "press avail," or brief news conference, every five or six days, but they acknowledge the schedule often slips. (Obama is also on a weekly schedule; Edwards, third in the national polls, is more accessible.) The result is little red meat for the press pack. In fact, much of the chatter among the reporters is about MapQuest and GPS devices and Hertz's NeverLost technology as they trade tips on how to track their constantly moving quarry.

Earlier this month, Snow ignored the speed limit as she chased Clinton from a Manchester diner to a Concord state office where the candidate was filing to run in the primary. "I parked seven blocks away," Snow says. "I ran up the street in my high-heel boots. I got there out of breath, and the Secret Service stopped me and said, 'You can't come in.' "


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