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'Substantive' Press Is Taken for a Spin

"But he suggested he wasn't going to come if there wasn't an agreement," said BBC's Katty Kay. "There is no agreement."

"Do you want him here?" Graham asked. And, of course, the journalists did, or their trip to Ole Miss would have been pointless.

Ten feet away, John Kerry -- who would have been mobbed four years ago -- looked around the tent, and when no one seemed interested in his presence, walked out.

Outside, on a summerlike evening, Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs held forth for the likes of NBC's Chuck Todd and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who was wearing an Elvis T-shirt. (The company may have been more pleasant than that of McCain aides, who have barred Dowd from the candidate's plane. And the Obama camp seemed to show its media leanings when it texted followers to watch the debate -- on CNN.)

Gibbs said he was merely trying to gauge the media mood. And what would his role be afterward?

"I will be very, very frank," he said, laughing at the absurdity.

Moments after the debate, the front of the tent resembled a crowded bazaar, festooned with huge yellow signs for McCain surrogates and narrow blue ones for Obama advocates. The biggest names drew the largest crowds until the journalists grew bored and drifted off in search of better goods -- the free market at work.

While Axelrod fielded questions in one corner, McCain spokeswoman Nicolle Wallace was surrounded by a second press pack six feet away. She lauded her boss for suggesting he would consider a partial freeze on federal spending. "That was a leadership moment," Wallace said again and again.

Minutes later the two stood awkwardly side by side, staring straight ahead at a robot camera, waiting for an interview with CBS's Katie Couric.

"Go ahead, David, spin me," Couric began.

"I don't need to spin you, Katie. . . . What you saw was one candidate making a forceful, compelling case for change," Axelrod said.

When her turn came, Wallace -- who was working with Couric last year as a CBS commentator -- said: "What was exposed tonight was a leadership gap, a judgment gap and an experience gap." Then she was back to McCain's "bold" spending freeze.


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