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.

"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.

As the McCain team rushed out a Web ad featuring Obama repeatedly saying McCain was right about this or that, Fox's Sean Hannity, MSNBC's Chris Matthews and other TV hosts picked up the point -- a twist that left Obama press secretary Linda Douglass shaking her head.

"I can't believe that anyone is criticizing someone, in this hyperpartisan environment, for being gracious enough to acknowledge where there are areas of agreement," the former ABC correspondent said. "I find it surprising that journalists would be raising questions about a candidate who is capable of acknowledging that his opponent has a point."

Palin Gets Panned

Sarah Palin has been struggling in her own debates -- with network anchors. While the Alaska governor hardly drew rave reviews for her interview with Charlie Gibson, her sitdown with Katie Couric last week opened the floodgates of criticism, even from conservatives.

Palin was halting, repetitive and occasionally stumped on basic questions. And the worst moments -- boasting again, Tina Fey-like, of Alaska's proximity to Russia -- have been endlessly replayed on the other networks and the Web.

It may have been a turning point for Couric, who was persistent without being overbearing, in shedding early doubts about her ability to be a commanding presence in the CBS anchor chair. And the worst may be yet to come for Palin; sources say CBS has two more responses on tape that probably will prove embarrassing.

Although some journalists say privately they are censoring their comments about Palin to avoid looking like they're piling on, pundits on the right are jumping ship. MSNBC's Joe Scarborough says Palin "just seems out of her league." National Review Editor Rich Lowry called her performance "dreadful." Dallas Morning News columnist Rod Dreher described the interview as a "train wreck." Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker urged Palin to quit the race, saying: "If BS were currency, Palin could bail out Wall Street herself."

The interview is drawing extraordinary attention because of the McCain campaign's calculated decision to shield Palin from reporters. No vice presidential nominee in modern history has been this inaccessible to the media, reinforcing the perception that she can't hit major-league pitching. When the networks balked at recording Palin's photo ops with foreign leaders at the U.N. last week unless journalists were allowed in -- and a CNN producer was granted access for all of 29 seconds -- the no-press dictum degenerated into farce.

Palin was buoyed for weeks by negative and sometimes unfair coverage, particularly about her family situation, that turned her into a sympathetic figure. But the Couric and Gibson interviews were the first real test of whether she could do more than read a punchy speech off a prompter. And even many of her supporters are no longer trying to spin her performance.

Not Too Bright

The rhetoric gets heated this time of year, but Paul Begala, the CNN commentator, went way over the line in calling President Bush a "high-functioning moron."

The former Bill Clinton aide can be a witty partisan, but there are 50 ways he could have ridiculed Bush's capacity to govern without using such a slur. Begala, though, is undeterred: "I said it. I meant it. I don't regret it. . . . You cannot imagine the positive feedback I've gotten."

Other thoughts on the debate . . . I watched it unfold in the hall, where McCain seemed as vigorous as Obama and seemed to finish with a slight edge. But as I saw the debate being replayed on television, the close-ups made McCain look his 72 years -- a point made by some focus-group participants. And as we've learned in every debate since Nixon/Kennedy, appearance matters.

Hey -- maybe Obama did win:

"A majority of debate watchers in a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken Saturday picked Obama over Republican John McCain when asked which candidate offered the best proposals to solve the country's problems, 52%-35%. They said Obama did better overall in the debate than McCain, 46%-34% . . .

"Obama was the only national leader or institution with a net positive rating on handling the Wall Street crisis in a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken Friday and Saturday -- 46% approved, 43% disapproved. For McCain, the numbers were 37% approve, 58% disapprove. Democratic and GOP congressional leaders, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and President Bush also did poorly."

A look at post-debate chatter from around the galaxy:

National Review: "John McCain delivered a solid performance in the first presidential debate of the general election Friday night, one more impressive than that of Barack Obama. Obama's surrogates are complaining in every available venue that McCain was 'condescending' and 'mean,' a sure sign their man lost. For our money, McCain wasn't tough enough on Obama."

New Republic's Nate Silver:

"By a 62-32 margin, voters thought that Obama was 'more in touch with the needs and problems of people like you.' This is a gap that has no doubt grown because of the financial crisis of recent days. But it also grew because Obama was actually speaking to middle class voters. Per the transcript, McCain never once mentioned the phrase 'middle class' (Obama did so three times). And Obama's eye contact was directly with the camera, i.e. the voters at home. McCain seemed to be speaking literally to the people in the room in Mississippi, but figuratively to the punditry. It is no surprise that a small majority of pundits seemed to have thought that McCain won, even when the polls indicated otherwise; the pundits were his target audience."

John Judis, also in TNR:

"All in all, it was a draw, which is a plus for Barack Obama, because he is ahead in the polls. What did Obama have to do? Like Reagan in 1980, he had to reassure voters that he wouldn't bite them. In Obama's case, that mean assuring them he was not a black radical or Muslim and that he had a sufficient command of foreign policy to run the country. He did that. McCain, on the other hand, did reasonably well -- he escaped the economic discussion unscathed and showed himself knowledgeable about foreign affairs -- but he needed to show Obama up and he didn't. He did well, but not well enough to change the race."

John Dickerson, in Slate:

"Obama and McCain looked like equals onstage. McCain turned in a marginally stronger performance, but Obama looked strong enough, and in a tough year for Republicans with Obama leading in the polls, that's a victory for the Democrat. Obama did what he needed to do to convince people he could be commander in chief -- his challenge for the night. McCain showed he could talk about the economy -- his challenge -- but not so brilliantly that he dented Obama's advantage on the issue."

Joe Klein, in Time:

"The more I think about it, the more McCain's performance annoys me. He seemed condescending and small throughout, whereas Obama was far more gracious and -- I hesitate to use the cliche, but what the hell -- likeable. For McCain's dismissive posture to have worked, Obama would have had to seem as uninformed and overmatched as, well, Sarah Palin. But Obama was as well informed -- indeed, better informed -- than McCain, even on foreign policy, McCain's alleged specialty. . . . I'm not so sure people are going to want him glowering in their living rooms the next four years."

Power Line's Paul Mirengoff:

"If McCain out-debated Obama (as I believe he did) but still 'lost,' that would be a pretty strong sign that voters just aren't buying what he's selling and that, consequently, McCain is destined to be rejected in November."

Now we can all start debating how Palin will do in her debate this week. Bill Kristol, who's well sourced in McCainland, says in his NYT column:

"McCain picked Sarah Palin in part because she's a talented politician and communicator. He needs to free her to use her political talents and to communicate in her own voice.

"I'm told McCain recently expressed unhappiness with his staff's handling of Palin. On Sunday he dispatched his top aides Steve Schmidt and Rick Davis to join Palin in Philadelphia. They're supposed to liberate Palin to go on the offensive as a combative conservative in the vice presidential debate on Thursday."

Well, sure -- as long as she can field questions better than she did with Katie.

Is it fair to post this YouTube video of Sarah Palin in the Miss Alaska competition? We already know she was in a beauty pageant. The bathing suit is modest. But the footage gives you a brief glimpse of that period of her life. Hey -- don't all click at once!

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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