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Couric's Prime Time
It May Be Her First Convention, but the 'CBS Evening News' Anchor Is in Her Comfort Zone

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 28, 2008

DENVER, Aug. 27

Moments after giving Charles Barkley a big hug on the Pepsi Center floor, Katie Couric bumps into Joe Biden's son, Beau, in the basketball locker room that is serving as CBS's cramped work space.

Couric asks Beau, the Delaware attorney general, whether she can see his dad, who is suddenly much in demand as the vice presidential nominee. "Tell him to give me a quick call. Tell him not to forget the little people!" she shouts, walking off.

Half an hour later, Couric and several aides are in an elevator when she spots a familiar-looking figure and scoots out at the wrong floor. "Is that Evan Bayh?" she asks as the Indiana senator chats on his cellphone. She tells Bayh she had predicted on television that he would become Barack Obama's running mate. "I hope I didn't damage your credibility," he says.

Couric is moving at a whirlwind pace, constantly mobbed, constantly interviewed, a higher-wattage celebrity than most of the politicians she pursues. The freewheeling nature of covering the Democratic convention plays to her strengths in a way that a tightly scripted 22-minute newscast does not. She is, suddenly, the "Today" show Katie, fun-loving and wisecracking, not the more sober figure who has drawn mixed reviews in her nearly two years behind the anchor desk.

"I feel weirdly more comfortable and relaxed when I'm out of the studio, which is a sanitized environment," she says. "You pick up on the energy of your surroundings. . . . It's much more like my old job. I can really loosen up."

Asked if she has anything to prove while anchoring her first convention, Couric invokes her rivals, saying tersely: "No. Does Brian Williams? Does Charlie Gibson?"

But this could also be Couric's last convention, if CBS executives follow through on their earlier inclination to replace her after the election in light of her disappointing third-place ratings. CBS's convention ratings, too, have lagged behind those of not just NBC and ABC but CNN. No final decision has been made, and Couric, while acknowledging continued frustrations, dismisses the reports that blossomed last spring as "a crazy media spin cycle that was sort of surreal to watch."

CBS News President Sean McManus says "that story got old" and that critics now focus on Couric's job performance rather than her social life and wardrobe. The conventions, he says, are "the perfect vehicle for her to spread her wings a little bit."

The flight path can be unpredictable. At the security line Tuesday morning, Couric spots Michael Dukakis, the Democratic Party's nominee 20 years ago, and grabs him for an impromptu interview. Dukakis says he blames himself for George W. Bush's presidency because he blew the race against Bush's father.

Couric later tapes a series of promo spots from a small platform on the floor, about the size of a walk-in closet, wedged between the Virginia and Michigan delegations. CBS is broadcasting from the crowded spot, far below the skyboxes being used by ABC and NBC.

No sooner does Couric finish than she is led upstairs to a CBS booth for a series of interviews with radio affiliates. "It was hard not to get choked up," she tells one of the appearance Monday night by the ailing Ted Kennedy. "The cute quotient was pretty much off the charts," she tells another about Obama's daughters coming onstage. One interviewer turns off his recorder and blurts: "I'm a huge fan."

The blur of a day seems divided among those who want something from Couric, those she is chasing and chance encounters with friends and colleagues. Barkley, the former basketball star, tells Couric that he just got a colonoscopy -- which might sound odd, except that she has persuaded him to join a cancer telethon next week that she is spearheading with the other network anchors.

Shortly before 4:30 Mountain time, she is back on the floor for the "CBS Evening News." Even with a headset that includes dual earpieces, it is an act of supreme anchor concentration to conduct a broadcast during the roar of a convention so loud that Couric can't be heard five feet away. Two minutes before airtime, she previews a question with correspondent Jeff Greenfield, telling him, "You can take it in any direction you want."

Two hours later, having changed from a gray jacket and skirt to a navy one, Couric is going over scripts for the 60 minutes of prime time -- minus commercials -- that CBS and the other broadcast networks are allotting to each night of the conventions. She looks at an introduction on head writer Jerry Cipriano's laptop screen: "I'm up here with Bob Schieffer, a veteran of 20 conventions, not counting the Shriners . . ."

"That's funny, Shecky," she says.

They turn to the setup for the Dukakis interview. Couric wants a lighter tone, noting that the hand-held camera footage they shot is "very raw and YouTubey." She dictates the new wording:

"For me, a funny thing happened on the way to the Pepsi Center today. When I was at a security checkpoint -- does that sound like I'm in Iraq? -- I ran into someone who used to be famous. Just kidding."

Couric slips behind a curtain for some last-minute makeup and blow-drying, but the floor director warns that they need to get moving because "it's a zoo out there."

Indeed, the floor is so gridlocked that aides have to form a protective cordon around Couric, moving inches at a time as onlookers shout greetings, try to touch her and snap pictures. Couric goes on the air at 10 p.m. Eastern time as a band begins blaring to welcome the next speaker, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland.

"This is Hillary Clinton's night at the convention, though not the night she had planned on," Couric begins amid the cacophony. Things go smoothly as she and her correspondents run through a series of interviews. When Clinton takes the stage to thunderous applause, Couric turns her head and smiles wistfully, watching another woman who tried to break through a glass ceiling. She slips on her glasses and makes notes on the prepared text.

Clinton's speech doesn't end until after 11, leaving Couric only two minutes to wrap up the show. But after a brief break, she launches into a Webcast, done with Cnet.com, that seems as much about giving the CBS team a sense of staying in the game as about reaching a small audience online.

Freed from the usual time constraints, Couric seems to come unplugged. She warns former White House aide Dan Bartlett that she's about to blow him off for an actress who has just sat down on the set, combing her tousled blond mane.

"Listen, Dan," Couric says, "you really are a total hunk of burning love, but I've got somebody much better-looking here. Morgan Fairchild never ages. What is that about?"

Fairchild, a Democratic activist, praises Clinton's speech, and before long Couric asks what she is doing for fun in Denver.

"What are you doing, honey?" Fairchild asks. "Let's hit the town."

Soon Couric is chatting up two pro wrestlers, the muscle-bound Batista and the slim Candice Michelle, who is wearing the scantiest of shorts. They are pushing a registration drive called "Smackdown Your Vote."

"This is a crazy question, but you're, like, so beautiful," Couric tells Michelle. "You don't look that strong, no offense."

"She's tough," Batista insists.

What was supposed to be a half-hour online show runs 40 minutes, but no one seems to care.

As a tired-looking Couric makes her way off the floor, she is repeatedly accosted. A Dutch radio reporter sticks a mike in her face and asks if she has advice for Obama. Another man says, "Katie, you are so pretty in person," before bending her ear about how he is a former prison inmate who has started a program for ex-offenders. Then there is the man who slipped her a business card for a company that makes stools in the shape of horses' rear ends.

"Maybe we'll have him on tomorrow's Webcast," Couric tells her team.

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