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White House reporters see the other side while campaigning for board spots
But the real race is for the "at large" seat, coveted by Nichols, Laura Meckler of the Wall Street Journal and Carol Lee of Politico.
"My expectation was that I would be running unopposed," Meckler said, half-jokingly. "I never thought there would be such an intense campaign."
Each candidate has sent out a mission statement. Nichols positioned himself as the populist. ("I sit in the basement, where I belong," he wrote.) Meckler staked out the experienced-candidate ground. ("I've worked in Washington for 14 years," she wrote, describing herself as a "tough" but also "nice person" who called for a "summer picnic for actual WH reporters and officials.") Lee's bullet points announced her strictly business approach. ("I'm at the White House every day, all day," she wrote, emphasizing her "can-do attitude.")
The candidates have spent hours upon hours delivering personal pitches on the sidelines of the briefing room, over coffee or on the phone. They have sent e-mails, in many cases multiple e-mails, to members who haven't voted. Lee's Politico colleague Kendra Marr built her campaign a Facebook page.
In interviews, the three at-large candidates each expressed frustration with the limited access the Obama administration has provided to the president, but also to policymakers -- and they all argued that they could get better results. ("It sounds like an empty campaign promise," Burton observed.)
As in any campaign, the crummy economy reared its head with candidates vowing to cut the cost of expensive charter flights. They all agree that the correspondents' dinner is in need of reform and that board members need to bring the transparency they demand of the Obama administration to their own organization.
Then there's the hot-button issue of the day: What is going to happen to Thomas's seat? Both Fox News, owned by Rupert Murdoch, and Bloomberg, owned by Michael Bloomberg, want it. Clearly, after years of asking questions, the reporters-turned-candidates have learned how to dodge one.
"The next board will determine who will go up to the front row," Lee said. "That will be a discussion that will be had after this election."
"We need an open discussion," said Meckler, whose newspaper is also owned by Murdoch.
"Lots of people will be interested in that seat," said Nichols, of Bloomberg. "You have to take off your news organization hat and do what's best for the association."
In the hours before the Tuesday briefing, as cameramen played poker by the vending machines (Scherer has proposed stocking them with "healthier food") and members of the Saudi delegation accompanying King Abdullah took pictures of each other in front of the lectern ("So where is Helen Thomas's seat?" one asked), voters voiced their concerns. A member of the front-rows crowd said the network anchors and big-newspaper reporters still think that they unfairly shoulder the burden of filing pool reports that are then distributed to outlets that do not pay to travel with the president.
Sam Youngman, a correspondent from The Hill, stood outside the theater puffing on a cigarette. He said the "basement crowd" has different needs, and he chose the candidate best "attuned to the specific concerns of a small organization like mine."
Some voters had more personal motivations.
April Ryan, a reporter for American Urban Radio who is known for shouting at Gibbs ("Don't play with me"), was out for revenge. Standing outside the briefing door, she said she lost last year's election by 12 votes because Meckler sought to sink her candidacy. "This year, she came and asked me for my vote!" Ryan said. "The nerve!"
Ryan has emphatically backed Lee of Politico, shouting, "Carol Lee is our woman" in the basement. She has just as emphatically not backed Meckler, whom she accused of flip-flopping on the pool report issue. ("I believe I was right," Meckler said about her former position. "But sometimes I feel like you have to move on.")
The foreign correspondents started taking seats in the back of the briefing room and discussed the Russian spy story. Some of the more eccentric members of the association, who have affiliations to ambiguous outlets and haven't written stories in years, chatted on the sidelines. Each gets a vote and candidate attention, too. ("That's the beauty of democracy," Meckler said. "Everyone gets an equal vote." )
A woman's voice came over the loudspeaker announcing that the briefing would begin in two minutes. Reporters prepared their questions for Gibbs. Meckler took her seat in the second row close to Nichols, who stood up, spotted Andrei Sitov, the correspondent for the Russian news agency TASS, and turned on the charm. "You've got to get a question today!" he exclaimed, as the Russian beamed.