NBC's Primary Source for Election '08

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 12, 2008

NEW YORK -- In a borrowed office at 30 Rock, Chuck Todd is on his cellphone, telling a Barack Obama strategist that his boss will probably fall just short of winning Indiana that night.

"Are you really going to ask for a recount over one delegate?" NBC's political director asks, swiveling in his chair. "It is literally one delegate!"

Less than an hour later, Todd is in front of a bright green wall in Studio 3K, a map of Indiana projected behind him, Hillary Clinton clinging to a fragile lead, when MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann asks: "Did it just end tonight?"

"It may just have ended," Todd says, virtually pronouncing Obama the Democratic nominee at 12:09 a.m. Wednesday.

For political junkies, Todd has become all but inescapable. When he isn't shuttling between studios, he is being invoked as an authority by one anchor or another. After a career out of the limelight, the genial 36-year-old is the campaign season's most improbable TV star.

Every organization has someone like "Chuckie T," as his colleagues call him. He is the brainy guy poring over computer printouts, the number cruncher in the back office. But the voracious appetite of cable news has given him a huge megaphone and an outsize role in shaping coverage of the White House race.

Todd admits to worrying about overexposure, saying: "I don't like going on if I don't feel like I have new information or an interesting way to present the information." But he justifies his ubiquity by noting that audiences drift in and out all day.

When he started at NBC a year ago, Todd felt he was struggling. "The hardest part is to explain the minutiae clearly," he says. "Now I can take the minutiae and make it sound like English for laypeople who haven't been following the DNC delegate rules for 20 years."

Tim Russert, NBC's Washington bureau chief, hired him from the Hotline, the online political digest, telling Todd that beyond his office duties he would get a tryout on "Meet the Press." Apparently Todd passed the audition. "The secret to his success is he understands politics and can explain it," Russert says. "Our platforms are 24/7, and someone has to man the platforms."

Todd is also the point man for dealing with the campaigns. "I think he has emerged as one of the most clear-eyed, honest-dealing pundits in the media," says Obama spokesman Bill Burton. "I have nothing but respect for all of the balls he juggles all day."

Most network political directors labor in obscurity. Few outside the political community knew Todd's predecessor at NBC, Elizabeth Wilner. The most prominent of the bunch was ABC's former political director, Mark Halperin, whom Todd viewed as a model.

On a cable channel packed with such opinionated personalities as Olbermann and Chris Matthews, Todd stands out by not being flamboyant. While others are getting punch-drunk on polls, New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley observed, Todd is "the designated driver of MSNBC's political coverage."

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