Spin Doctors Work Their Voodoo

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 29, 2008; 10:10 AM

OXFORD, Miss. -- David Axelrod was surrounded by a pack of camera-toting, mike-wielding, pushing-and-shoving media types, one of whom asked whether his man Barack Obama had been "too nice" in the just-completed debate with John McCain.

"I don't think he was too nice. . . . There were clear differences. . . . He made a very strong case, absolutely," the onetime newspaperman said in his meandering style.

Twenty feet away, McCain operative Steve Schmidt was robotically hammering home a single number.

"Senator Obama was right tonight when he said John McCain was right 11 times. . . . It was a home run for Senator McCain. . . . The person who is losing the debate, the person who is on defense, is the person who says his opponent is right 11 times," the shaved-head strategist declared.

Obama may have won the insta-polls after Friday's debate here at the University of Mississippi, but the McCain team won the spin war, a post-game ritual that quickly seeps into the punditry enveloping such events. What was equally striking, inside the massive media tent, was that some of the journalists who profess to want an elevated debate on the issues -- which is precisely what they got, courtesy of Jim Lehrer -- seemed unusually interested in style points.

Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody asked Axelrod about the "body language," saying: "John McCain didn't make eye contact at all." Another reporter wondered whether McCain had been "patronizing" in dismissing Obama's lack of foreign-policy experience. A third asked whether McCain had hurled "insults" at his opponent.

Perhaps the debate's sober tone -- lacking such memorable one-liners as "There you go again" or "You're no Jack Kennedy" -- left the journalistic handicappers searching for a more personal way to score the session. They disdain the predictable partisans who show up afterward, but these advocates -- from Madeleine Albright and Rudy Giuliani -- didn't lack for attention.

"The spin is something we should pay less attention to, but it's important because it can change the story line," says NBC's Andrea Mitchell.

"I find most of what these people say about exceeding expectations to be total baloney," says CNBC's John Harwood.

"I guess it'd be news if someone came out and said, 'My guy did just awful,' " says CBS's Bob Schieffer.

The spinning began in earnest hours before the debate. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham insisted to a group of reporters that his close friend McCain had done the right thing in parachuting into congressional negotiations over the $700 billion federal bailout bill and threatening to abandon the debate.

"What about the criticism that Senator McCain is impetuous, kind of a drama king?" asked National Review's Byron York. Graham said McCain's participation had been "invaluable," even though the bailout talks had imploded.

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