CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Shortly before the first presidential debate got underway here, Irish television reporter Carol Coleman asked the classic isn't-your-guy-in-deep-trouble question.
"How is John Kerry going to pull this one out of the bag?" she said, thrusting a mike at Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart.
"This campaign has plenty of life in it," Lockhart insisted.
By yesterday morning, Newsweek's cover was trumpeting Kerry as "Off the Ropes." The Los Angeles Times front-page headline was "Viewers of First Debate Give Round One to Kerry." "It's a Horse Race Once Again," said the Chicago Tribune.
Why the "dramatic psychological shift," as The Washington Post put it? The answer, in large measure, is polls.
Kerry may have impressed much of the television audience with a strong debate performance Thursday night. But it was a September of sagging poll numbers that caused much of the downbeat coverage, and improved numbers -- starting minutes after the debate ended -- have journalists suddenly proclaiming that the senator might overtake President Bush.
"The polls drive media coverage," says Roger Simon, chief political correspondent of U.S. News & World Report and part of the media invasion in Coral Gables. "It controls the language. All of a sudden there's a front-runner and there's a challenger," and Kerry had been depicted as being "in a hole. He's trying to make up lost ground. He must close the gap. He must come from behind. It's voodoo news."
The alchemy is working, at least fleetingly. Newsweek has Kerry jumping to a 47 percent to 45 percent lead. And the "who won" polls Thursday night were all lopsided, with Kerry deemed the debate victor by 9 points (ABC), 16 (CNN) and 18 (CBS). Never mind that these are blurry snapshots (Al Gore won the first insta-polls in 2000) or that the surveys, financed and trumpeted by news outlets, have been unusually volatile this year.
After Bush bounced to a double-digit lead in some surveys after the Republican convention, reporters and pundits began downgrading Kerry's campaign skills and his team, creating a self-reinforcing reality.
"Polls have been so weird this year we all know not to rely on them," says Liz Marlantes, a Christian Science Monitor reporter. "But it's still really difficult because it's one of the only concrete things you have -- even though they're not concrete. Otherwise you go on what voters tell you, and that tends to be anecdotal." Besides, "the polls could all be wrong."
Conservatives believe many reporters are secretly rooting for Kerry, but there may be a more fundamental motivation, says John Harwood, political editor of the Wall Street Journal. For journalists, he says, "having a rooting interest in having a race may have a positive effect on the coverage of Kerry right now, because people have an incentive to say, 'We still have a contest.' " That, says Juan Williams of National Public Radio, is why political writers cast the debates "as Kerry's last big shot," while a loss would have been interpreted "as the beginning of the end."
Minutes before the debate, Time correspondent Matt Cooper said of the Kerry comeback scenario: "Everyone in this room wants to write it. They're aching to write it. When the polls close up, you'll see more of it."
He was right -- at least until the polls shift again.
Pollster Frank Luntz is crying foul after MSNBC canceled his long-scheduled focus group two days before the debate. Luntz, who is under contract to MSNBC, had already spent $30,000 on recruits for several focus groups and invited reporters in Florida to watch -- only to be told that the network didn't want to declare a winner in the debate.
"I think they buckled to political pressure," says Luntz, who has advised Republicans from Newt Gingrich to Rudy Giuliani but says he's done no GOP work since 2001. "They caved. . . . Why is it that Democrats are allowed to do this" after leaving politics, "but Republicans aren't?"
But MSNBC spokesman Jeremy Gaines says: "We made a decision not to use focus groups as part of our debate coverage. This decision had nothing to do with Frank's past work or politics. We think our viewers should be able to make up their own minds without 'scientific' help" -- despite the fact that the network has prominently featured Luntz and his on-air focus groups for four years.
Luntz has criticized President Bush on occasion, and his non-televised focus group, ironically, favored Kerry in the debate. Some NBC executives find him extremely fair but believe his longtime GOP links create a perception problem.
"For me, nothing is more important than getting it right," Luntz says. He says MSNBC bowed to pressure from conservative-turned-liberal activist David Brock in dumping him and that the network hasn't even agreed to use him as an analyst -- sans focus groups -- in this week's debates.
It's official: CNBC has abandoned news, at least at night.
After dropping the signature newscast created by Brian Williams, the network is now axing its only Washington political show, "Capital Report," after the election.
"It's clear CNBC prime-time is going in a different direction," says co-host Alan Murray, who left the Wall Street Journal in 2002 to become the network's Washington bureau chief.
"Alan and I like to call this the little show that could," says the other co-host, Gloria Borger, who gave up her "Face the Nation" gig last year to join CNBC. "With a small staff, we sure got big guests."
Those guests included John Kerry, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Cheney, who made news by ripping the New York Times. But big news didn't translate into big ratings -- "Capital Report" averaged 81,000 viewers this year -- and CNBC is going with the likes of Dennis Miller, John McEnroe and "The Apprentice" reruns.
Before the show, says Murray, "CNBC had no profile in Washington" -- a status it is likely to resume.
There's no escape for Dan Rather, even on the comics pages.
"Mallard Fillmore," a syndicated strip running in nearly 400 papers (though not The Washington Post), takes on the CBS docu-drama for a two-week run beginning today. In one strip, Rather is seen saying: "I'd like to clear the air and say the memos are, indeed, fakes . . . made by evil Bush operatives to make me look bad."
In another, Peter Jennings begins to tout "a hard-hitting, critical look at the whole CBS-Dan Rather mess. But then CBS might start doing stories about our mistakes. So instead, we bring you the third installment in our series, 'Does your pet watch too much television?' ''
"Mallard" creator Bruce Tinsley, who styles himself as the conservative answer to "Doonesbury," admits he's "piling on," but says he's mocking a medium in which few are willing to concede bias in major mistakes. "I don't think Dan Rather is by any means the most liberally biased guy out there, but he may be the most colorful," says Tinsley.
A FoxNews.com story had some world-exclusive quotes from John Kerry, with the Democratic candidate telling a crowd after the debate: "Didn't my nails and cuticles look great? What a good debate! . . . Women should like me! I do manicures. . . . I'm metrosexual -- he's a cowboy."
But, as reported by liberal blogger Josh Marshall, this was fiction. Fox executives are furious with chief political correspondent Carl Cameron for writing a satire that mistakenly wound up on their Web site, prompting a retraction Friday.
"Carl made a stupid mistake, and he's been reprimanded for it," says Fox spokesman Paul Schur. "It was a poor attempt at humor and he regrets it very much. It was a lapse in judgment on his part."