Accessibility Opens Doors For McCain

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 21, 2008

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- As the JetBlue charter from Michigan touched down in South Carolina, I strolled up to John McCain's front-row seat -- none of his aides batted an eye -- and asked if he would continue to chat with reporters around the clock if he won the Republican nomination.

Most candidates, after all, grow more cautious around the media mob as the stakes get higher.

McCain said he couldn't stop, because "that destroys credibility." And besides, he said, "I enjoy it a lot. It keeps me intellectually stimulated, it keeps me thinking about issues, and it keeps me associated with a lower level of human being than I otherwise would be."

There he goes again.

McCain's ability to charm the press wasn't responsible for his big win in Saturday's South Carolina primary, but it didn't hurt. After the slimy, rumor-filled campaign run against him in that state in 2000, media outlets yesterday embraced the notion that his triumph was "poetic justice" (Chicago Tribune), "exorcising the ghosts" of South Carolina (New York Times) and a "spiritual victory" (Slate).

Every presidential campaign is constantly calculating whether journalists are potential allies or incorrigible foes. The media are a great -- and dirt-cheap -- vehicle for carrying a candidate's message, but submitting to questioning also carries the risk of being thrown on the defensive, as Mitt Romney learned in a tense exchange with Associated Press veteran Glen Johnson last week over the role of lobbyists in his campaign.

As a front-runner, Hillary Clinton spent most of last year keeping reporters at arm's length. But after falling behind in Iowa, she held an off-the-record dinner with traveling correspondents, brought them doughnuts on the press bus, pretended to be a flight attendant and began doing a slew of interviews, culminating in her "Meet the Press" appearance eight days ago. Accessibility, Clinton has concluded, has its benefits.

Barack Obama has staked out a middle ground, holding occasional "press avails" -- but traveling on a separate bus from the pack -- and recently agreeing to open his major fundraisers to journalists.

Mike Huckabee has been the ringmaster of a traveling media circus, even inviting reporters to watch him get a haircut. With a shoestring budget, he has been endlessly available as a talk-show guest, yukking it up with Jay Leno and Stephen Colbert, and regularly holding conference calls with journalists. Rudy Giuliani, despite taking a swipe at "the pundits" in a recent television ad, holds a daily news conference on the trail.

And then there is McCain. Reporters rarely quote his aides because the man himself is available to react to just about everything. And that "infinite" access, says Boston Globe correspondent Sasha Issenberg, helps the Arizona senator.

"He's pretty good road-trip company," Issenberg says. "The guy stays up on sports, movies and what's in the news. I've had the ability to have extensive conversations with him -- often Socratic dialogues -- about the issues. He's a richer candidate in stories written about him than other candidates are in stories written about them."

How candidates treat reporters shouldn't matter in the coverage, but it does. Journalists tend to reward those who engage them and get testy when they are stiffed, concluding that such candidates are overly calculating and wary of unscripted exchanges.

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