One in an occasional series

No one was paying the fella much attention. He was just sort of standing around, winter coat draped over his arm, a few crinkly papers in his hand, looking like Ordinary Man. Except he wasn't Ordinary Man. He was Bret Schundler, mayor of Jersey City, N.J., and he was waiting for an opportunity to say good things about Steve Forbes.

Now, it seems a fair question to ask why this relatively unknown leader of a minor East Coast city had flown all the way to Iowa earlier this week for a Republican presidential debate. But the answer is simple, really: Schundler hadn't come for the debate itself. His gig was the second act, that peculiar ritual of modern campaign politics known as post-debate spin. The debate about the debate.

That's when the campaigns deploy their agents to the press rooms and camera set-ups in hopes of influencing how the contest is portrayed in the media. The agents cite their opponents' mistakes and rebut their opponents' charges and speak of their candidate's clarity of thought and superior vision. And they always seem to have at their fingertips a bushel of obscure facts about issues raised on stage in the last hour. Or perhaps, even, an article a rival wrote 22 years ago that has been dredged up to embarrass him and then is fiendishly photocopied and distributed to 200 working journalists . . . as a service.

If they are good, the agents come up with snappy sound bites to make the sale. Under Steve Forbes's tax-cut plan, Schundler observed the other night, "people who shine shoes could become millionaires."

Spin on, spin on, spin on!

Voters never see this second act. But it would be a fascinating exercise in democracy to beam it to them live--"Truman Show" style. The whole contrived thing.

To be precise, Schundler is not a spinner, per se, at least not of the hired-gun, PR, strategist variety. Rather he is a Forbes "surrogate," which makes him a higher caliber twirler. Someone with his own electoral accomplishments. Republicans love Schundler because he runs a gritty city that is 65 percent minority. Newt Gingrich used to cite him every other day in the heady days after the Republican Revolution, a real-life example of the GOP's march to become the nation's majority party. Not to mention that Schundler's a former Democrat who was Gary Hart's western Iowa coordinator in the 1984 campaign.

Of Forbes, Schundler said, "I can get more votes for him in my city than any other Republican candidate. I can get inner city Democrats to vote for Forbes."

Spin, baby, spin.

But it wasn't like Schundler was all alone. No, siree. Not on the second floor balcony of the Des Moines Civic Center where the print press were writing their stories Monday night. And not down below at the Stoner Theater, appropriately tagged "Spin Center," where the candidates themselves showed up to assess their own performances.

The Forbes campaign is known for its scrappiness, for relentlessly bombarding reporters with inconsequential nuggets of information and all kinds of long-shot scenarios on the viability of the multimillionaire magazine publisher who pines to be president. Latest scenario: The ol' one-two punch. Forbes finishes a strong second to George W. Bush in Iowa. Sen. John McCain defeats Bush in New Hampshire. The veneer of Dubya inevitability is shattered. And then? "It's a whole new race," says Forbes adviser Greg Mueller. "And we're the only ones with the financial resources to go the distance with Bush."

Perhaps because their man is nowhere--unless you consider 7 percent in national polls somewhere--the Forbes brigade must try harder. So they spare no manpower on the spin game. To wit: Mueller and his associates Keith Appell, Juleanna Glover Weiss, Lisa Kruska and K.B. Forbes (no relation) were all in Des Moines. So was campaign manager Bill Dal Col. National chairman Ken Blackwell did TV interviews from Columbus, Ohio. The campaign also brought in Lyn Nofziger, a veteran of the Reagan White House, to tout Forbes as heir to the Gipper. Paul Weyrich, a name-brand national conservative leader, was brought in to boost Forbes's anti-abortion credentials in a state where Christian conservatives are extremely influential in the caucus process.

Before the debate, the Forbes team distributed news accounts from the Iowa papers touting the large crowds their man has been drawing in the state. After the debate, the Forbes team walked the press rows handing out Texas newspaper articles that questioned whether Bush was as tough on gun-law enforcement as he claimed.

"The value of working the media," Mueller explains, "is to help position yourself." You hope that the sum total of your spin "works its way into stories, into analyses," he adds. "But you don't want to overdo it."

Some journalists think it's way too late for that. "It's institutionalized now," says columnist Bob Novak, a veteran campaign reporter. "It's kind of disturbing to me."

Nobody was spinning when Nixon debated Kennedy in 1960. But by 1984, when Reagan debated Mondale, reporters were getting buttonholed by strategists. By 1988 the whole system was out of whack. It was "Animal House." Operatives for Vice President George Bush and Michael Dukakis would battle for positions in the spin room. Like limo drivers at airports, young campaign aides would be waiting in the spin warrens with homemade signs directing reporters to the spinners they most desired.

"We used to plot out the spin room like a giant game of Risk," recalls Dan Schnur, who was part of Bush's spin team in '88 and is now chief spokesman for McCain's campaign.

The game got to be so ridiculously over the top that it became a parody of itself. Now, something of a backlash has ensued. Where once reporters understood they were getting spun but were still interested in listening, many reporters now ignore the spinners and refuse to include their comments in next-day stories.

"It's like everything else," says Schnur. "It became so processed that the reporters just tuned it out. Now, all they want to do is file."

"The problem," Nofziger explained, "is if we don't come here and get our side of the debate story out we leave that to the Bush spinners and the Bauer spinners and the McCain spinners. So, it's a protective mechanism more than anything else."

So the spinning persists. And no one is more persistent at it than the Forbes team.

After Monday's debate, candidates, campaign aides and reporters all repaired to a popular steakhouse in downtown Des Moines. There, between bites of Iowa beef and glasses of red wine, a more informal brand of post-debate reflection occurred.

As Gary Bauer was leaving, he walked past a reporter who was in conversation with Forbes aides at the bar. "Now, don't let 'em spin you," Bauer playfully admonished.

But it was too late for that. By the time the bar closed, the only people remaining were a lone reporter and six Forbes spinners.

CAPTION: Dick Polman of the Philadelphia Inquirer, left, hears the spin on Steve Forbes's debate performance from political vet Lyn Nofziger.

CAPTION: K.B. Forbes, press secretary but no relation to Steve Forbes, talks with former Reagan operative Lyn Nofziger, right, following Monday's debate in Des Moines.