Rerouting McCain's Bus

John McCain's impromptu sessions with the press have become fewer and far between.
John McCain's impromptu sessions with the press have become fewer and far between. (By L.m. Otero -- Associated Press)
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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 4, 2008

KANSAS CITY While the traveling press corps was shipped off to a barbecue restaurant here, John McCain charmed his way through an interview with a local TV reporter. Surae Chinn of KCTV posed such less-than-penetrating questions as "How important is Missouri?" and "Have you chosen a running mate?" and -- addressing the candidate's wife, Cindy -- "How do you make your marriage work?"

Moments later, though, the Republican candidate seemed to grow annoyed with the Kansas City Star's Steve Kraske, who pressed him on his recent comment that "nothing is off the table" when it comes to strengthening Social Security.

When Kraske said that McCain presumably wasn't ruling out a payroll tax hike, McCain interrupted: "That's presuming wrong." When the reporter rephrased the question, McCain said: "If you want to keep asking me over and over again, you're welcome to."

It was a brief moment of friction that highlighted how the captain of the Straight Talk Express is having a bumpier ride with journalists than when he ran for president eight years ago. The popular image of the campaign -- McCain bantering with national journalists in the back of his bus -- has, in reality, all but vanished. The traveling press is now routinely stiffed in favor of five-minute sit-downs with local reporters.

At the same time, the Arizona senator is having trouble making news, or at least news that advances his campaign's goals, and when he does it is often reacting to the media hurricane that surrounds Barack Obama.

In 2000, when top news executives were clamoring for a chance to ride the fabled bus, McCain would spend hours talking to reporters who would write one story a day. "Now, with each bus trip, everyone's filing a blog report, every little thing is picked up and off it goes," says Slate correspondent John Dickerson. "It certainly takes him off message."

McCain is "pained" at all but ending the sessions, says spokeswoman Nicolle Wallace, a former Bush White House communications director, but "we have to find a balance. He won the primary essentially on a bus with the press. . . . He's intensely loyal to the back-and-forth with the press. It's who he is. It will always be part of our mix."

It wasn't part of the mix last week. National correspondents traveling with the candidate did not get to ask McCain a question for four days, and grew angry when a media availability was scheduled for late afternoon Friday in Panama City, Fla. -- too late to do them much good and requiring extra flights for those who had planned to head home for the weekend.

While the front of McCain's plane was reconfigured with a couch and two captain's chairs to allow for easy conversation, journalists say he has invited them up only once, on a trip to Colombia. On the ground, his availability is sometimes limited to a quick gaggle with a small group of pool reporters.

Obama doesn't mingle much with his press corps either -- he made an exception on his recent world tour -- but that has never been a core part of his strategy.

McCain is less engaging as a scripted candidate. But his strategists are convinced that the perpetual access was eroding their ability to drive a message, forcing the candidate to play on the media's turf by responding to flap-of-the-day questions, such as top adviser Carly Fiorina's lament that many health plans cover Viagra but not birth control.

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