As a general rule, reporters for the Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung are not granted access to Karl Rove.
But here is Marcus Messner, a Miami-based correspondent for the German daily newspaper, standing just a few feet away from George W. Bush's political mastermind. And a few feet away from John Kerry campaign spokesman Joe Lockhart, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and former secretary of state Madeleine Albright.
"This is a great opportunity for me," says Messner, who is standing on the edge of a throng around Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman. He is cocking his head, straining to decipher words amid a blur of noise.
The foreign media love the spin rooms after a presidential debate. They love them for the same reason that many members of the national media despise them: They are free-for-alls.
"You can go anywhere in the spin room, talk to anyone," says Regis Le Sommier, who covered Thursday night's debate for Paris Match, a French news magazine. The hierarchies of media access are subverted for one precious hour. CNN's Jeff Greenfield could be off talking to Sen. John McCain and suddenly the two men could be surrounded by 30 microphones from 30 nations (representing zero electoral votes).
"I am here to eavesdrop," says Eva Busse, a London-based correspondent for Financial Times Deutschland. She is standing in the middle of the spin room at the University of Miami.
Eavesdropping is about as close as a foreign reporter can get to any campaign officials in a U.S. presidential race.
The rationale is obvious: International reporters don't reach American voters. "No votes in Liverpool," said Bob Dole in 1996, blowing off Jonathan Freedland, a reporter for the Guardian of London.
Yet the foreign media continue to cover presidential campaigns. This is especially true now, during a campaign that is focused heavily on international affairs. There has been a far greater demand for space and access from foreign journalists than in previous elections, say campaign officials and reporters who have covered previous campaigns.
Not that this translates into any greater regard for the foreign press. Their labors are marked by unreturned voice mails, laughed-at interview requests and indifference.
Gerald Baker, the U.S. editor for the Times of London, was recently told by the Kerry campaign that foreign reporters would not be allowed on his campaign plane. He told them he was from the American magazine Weekly Standard, for which he also writes, and was given a seat.
"I don't think the campaigns realize how important this election is to the rest of the world," says Le Sommier. "The campaigns should pay more attention to the international media."
How do you say "Don't hold your breath" in French?
One Democratic campaign official ranks the foreign press "about on a par with lice" on his list of concerns. The official would not allow his name to be used, for fear his comment would reflect poorly on him.
Still, this disregard would surprise no member of the foreign press corps. "We are not a priority," understates Jerome Bernard, a Washington-based reporter for Agence France-Presse.
This pariah status is often a sharp contrast to the journalist's standing back home.
"Going to Washington is one of the best assignments for international reporters," says Richard Wolffe, a diplomatic correspondent for Newsweek who covered the 2000 campaign for London's Financial Times. "They come here and they think they're a big deal. And it's an incredible shock to their system to find out that Washington doesn't give a [expletive] about them."
Neither does Columbus, Albuquerque, Orlando -- or the candidates and staffers who shuttle between them. To many campaign officials, foreign journalists -- like head colds -- are an inevitable nuisance of campaign life, except that the head colds go away.
Erik Smith, a press secretary for Dick Gephardt's presidential campaign, says, "The problem is most acute when the reporter is a pretty big shot back home and they can't figure out why you don't fall to your knees when they show up in Boone, Iowa."
Bernard speaks longingly of days spent in Brussels, when he wrote about NATO and the European Union and people cared. "I used to cover ministry meetings," says Bernard. "People would read what I wrote. It was a good way to feel important."
Covering a U.S. campaign is not. "I have a sense that no one reads what I write," Bernard says. "The campaigns don't try to convince me of anything. There is no feedback. They don't really care."
As a French reporter, Bernard is in an unusual position, especially when he travels with Kerry, whom some Republicans have ridiculed for "looking French," and who is sensitive about doing anything to advance this notion. Some U.S. reporters mischievously urged Bernard to speak to Kerry in French, which the senator is conversant in.
Bernard demurred. "I don't wish to be part of the story," he says.
Officials from current and past campaigns say that foreign reporters can serve a range of useful purposes. Politicians and their spokesmen often call on foreign journalists during news conferences as a way to steer the discussion away from tense subjects.
Foreign media can also serve as harmless audiences for surrogates who are not fit for domestic audiences.
"You always have these very self-important supporters who believe the best work they can do for the campaign is to appear on television," says Chris Lehane, the press secretary for Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. "They were often the last person whose mug you wanted a swing voter in Florida to see."
Foreign reporters can also be vehicles for practical jokes, says Lehane, who recalls doing an interview with Finnish TV in which he gave his name as Jano Cabrera, another Gore press person.
"Jano" told the audience that he was a "huge fan of Finland" and encouraged viewers to become his pen pal.
"We then had a friend pretend to be the Finnish ambassador who followed up with a call to Jano," Lehane says.
In most cases, international reporters say they've enjoyed covering presidential campaigns, despite their marginalized status. And their U.S. counterparts -- particularly in the print media -- say the lack of access and cooperation they experience is not appreciably different from what everyone else gets at this stage. "Everyone in print is a foreign journalist during the last month of a campaign," says USA Today columnist Walter Shapiro.
Shortly after the debate, Le Sommier is seen in the media filing center pleading with Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter for an interview with the senator. "We did a cover story on Bush," he says plaintively. "When are you going to start paying more attention to the foreign press?"
Cutter smiles tightly and walks away.