The Spokespundits

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 28, 2008

Minutes before he was to appear on "Hardball," Todd Harris was handed a wire report quoting John McCain as saying that eliminating America's dependence on foreign oil would spare the country from fighting another Middle East war.

It was early May and Harris, who had just finished a stint as the spokesman for Fred Thompson's presidential campaign, called the McCain team for guidance. "They hadn't released any statement yet," he says, "but they gave me the meat of what it was going to say."

When pressed by host Chris Matthews, Harris -- who worked for McCain eight years ago -- argued that the Republican candidate was merely suggesting that energy independence would boost national security at home. He was challenged by the other guest, Jennifer Palmieri, who had been an adviser to John Edwards's campaign.

They are among a growing band of operatives who have made the magical transformation from press aide to pundit in the blink of a news cycle. "You get very comfortable speaking on someone else's behalf and thinking like they do," says Harris, reached in a car the other day on the way to, yes, "Hardball." "It is fun deciding for yourself what you think."

Big-name strategists -- James Carville, George Stephanopoulos, Robert Shrum, Dick Morris, Karl Rove -- have always been ushered into television studios after leaving the political game. So have recovering officeholders, such as former congressmen Joe Scarborough and Harold Ford, now MSNBC commentators, and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who signed with Fox News.

But this season, many previously obscure spokesmen and second-string assistants are becoming A-list cable news guests, providing much of the patter for the 2008 race. It is as though a parade of .250 hitters and backup quarterbacks were joining the likes of Tim McCarver or John Madden in the broadcast booth.

The explosion of political chat shows has put a premium on people who can be identified on screen as a former Democratic or Republican "strategist." And although viewers have a right to be skeptical -- how candid can they be, really? -- the guests do bring an insider's viewpoint forged during life in the trenches.

"It serves as a political methadone of sorts," says Kevin Madden, the former spokesman for Mitt Romney's presidential effort. "You're engaged in 18-hour days working on a campaign, and afterward you have to wean yourself off that high."

Madden has been just about everywhere lately. He held forth on "Larry King Live" on Tuesday and the next night on "Hardball," followed by an appearance an hour later on the Dan Abrams show "Verdict," and a Friday spot on "The Situation Room."

"Overnight you go from being an advocate to an analyst," Madden says. "You're no longer out there hitting the three main points you want to leave viewers with about Governor Romney. The worst segments are when you're faced with a Democrat who hasn't worked in a campaign and is just looking to bark talking points into a camera. I'm not burdened to stick to the party line."

It doesn't hurt that Madden attracts comments about his matinee-idol looks. "I'm married and have two boys," he says. "My wife wants to make sure I mention that more often."

Mike Murphy, the veteran GOP message guru who worked for McCain in 2000, signed with NBC this month immediately after his talks about joining the senator's campaign collapsed. Murphy has been outspoken in saying the McCain operation has spent too much time on the attack, raising the question of whether he is using his new perch to take potshots.

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