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Dashing Through the Snow, Craving News Along the Way

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 24, 2007

DES MOINES -- The photographers started yelling as Hillary Clinton boarded the helicopter.

She was kicking off a week-long aerial tour of this crucial, must-have, make-or-break state, but a tall man in a cowboy hat behind her was blocking the all-important shot as she made her way inside. Sensing trouble, Clinton popped her head back out the copter door and gave a thumbs-up, prompting cheers from the camera crowd.

A day later, Barack Obama's staff had set up a photo op as his bus pulled up to a community center in the Iowa town of Cherokee. But the Illinois senator, who has a certain disdain for political ritual, just walked in the door without waving or acknowledging the cameras -- eliciting groans from the TV crews.

Covering the Iowa caucuses means long hours of tedium in pursuit of fleeting moments: the right visual, the sharp comment, the flash of emotion. Every campaign stop -- Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, Davenport -- seems to be two hours from every other stop, requiring long drives across the flat, frozen landscape.

With the state's caucuses set for Jan. 3, much of the media mob is here, and their sheer numbers have relegated New Hampshire's primary, a mere five days later, to secondary status. Most East Coast journalists prefer New Hampshire -- easier to fly to, key towns closer together -- and there is a shared sense among political operatives and their chroniclers of being stranded in the heartland for the holidays. At a wine-soaked dinner with Clinton aides and two dozen journalists at the Centro restaurant here, the talk was as much about kids left home and presents unbought as about polls and tactics.

Every voter I spoke to at political events here was undecided, even though they had seen their favorite candidates two or three times. That means much of what has been written about Iowa could turn out to be screamingly wrong, much as predictions of Howard Dean's victory four years ago melted away.

The challenge for journalists on the trail is that the candidates say the same things over and over again, and their constant presence loses its novelty. Even a former president of the United States becomes old hat. That's why Bill Clinton teamed up last week with Magic Johnson, the better to attract TV cameras. And it worked: The Bill/Magic photo wound up on the New York Times front page and warranted a piece in The Washington Post's Style section.

Little wonder, then, that so many contenders now import celebrities to draw media attention. Obama has Oprah, of course; John Edwards has Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt; and Mike Huckabee has Chuck Norris. It's a gimmick, but it works.

There is no bus anymore in presidential politics. Yes, some of the candidates have been rolling out press buses or vans, but in the "Boys on the Bus" sense, there is no single bubble in which the journalistic pack travels. Even the heavily covered Clinton campaign has only a half-dozen national correspondents who tag along day after day, far fewer than similar campaigns in the past.

This is in part because news organizations, especially the broadcast networks, have cut back on such expensive travel for their front-line troops. And it's in part because many journalists fear the Stockholm syndrome of being embedded with the same unit for weeks on end. The result is a Hertz campaign, in which reporters in rental cars chase after multiple candidates.

A down-in-the-snow visit here yields a different picture of the campaign than the shards that make their way onto television screens and into print. And nowhere was that on clearer display than in successive appearances by Clinton and Obama.

From the moment Clinton took the hand-held mike at a barn in Johnston -- a converted barn in the middle of a subdivision, that is -- reporters were nudging each other about the transformation that had taken place. Gone was the steely, controlled figure who often recited her talking points without slurring a syllable. In its place was a humbler woman speaking in softer, even intimate tones, about childhood foibles and the meaning of friendship.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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