When the first editions of last Tuesday's New York Times hit the streets of Manhattan late Monday night, an aide to Democratic presidential contender Bruce Babbitt bought a copy and rushed to telephone Babbitt's press secretary at home in Phoenix.
"He told me that The Times had a story about our campaign being in debt," Michael McCurry said. "That's not the kind of story most press secretaries like to wake up to as their morning reading."
So McCurry, on his home computer, wrote a rebuttal to The Times story and transmitted it to a three-week-old computerized news service in McLean called the Presidential Campaign Hotline. By 10 a.m. Tuesday, shortly after most political reporters, lobbyists, campaign aides and consultants had read The Times story, many also had access to Babbitt's version.
"The hotline is quickly becoming a great tool for damage control," McCurry said. "It's doing what a good press secretary used to do manually, by phone."
The reason the service is used as a bulletin board by politicians is that the reporters who cover them are becoming addicted to it as part of their morning schedule.
A brainchild of Republican consultant Douglas Bailey and Democratic direct-mail expert Roger Craver, the hotline is supposed to be a computerized rendering of what a group of political junkies would talk about if they sat down together each day for breakfast.
The difference is that hotline organizers are trying to get information to political reporters and campaign aides a day or perhaps two days earlier than in previous campaigns. Instead of waiting 48 hours to learn about the latest swipe at Vice President Bush in the Manchester Union Leader or David Yepsen's carefully crafted political analyses in the Des Moines Register, hotline readers have it the same day as those in New Hampshire and Iowa.
"It's the only place you can get the Manchester Union Leader at 10:30 a.m. in downtown Washington," said David Shribman, national political correspondent at The Wall Street Journal. "It ensures that there are no voices in the political wilderness anymore."
This insider's news summary, put out by American Political Network Inc., costs a whopping $150 to $350 a month to clients who use their computers every morning to "download" the daily report, a 15- to 30-page printout, from the hotline's computer service. Begun Sept. 15, the fledgling news digest has about 150 clients including 65 to 75 from the news media, according to Bailey.
Although most major news organizations, campaigns and political firms are taking the service, a few do not have to pay. The hotline provides analysts such as Robert Squier, Lance Tarrance, Richard Wirthlin and William Schneider with copies in return for their occasional snippets of wisdom printed in the back pages of the news service.
Similarly, Yepsen receives a free copy each morning because he sends his copy to the hotline after editors have cleared his stories for the paper. The deal for the Des Moines Register, of course, "is because we really needed his stuff," Bailey said. Will the deal end after the Iowa caucuses Feb. 8? Probably, Bailey acknowledged.
In spartan offices in McLean, the hotline operation has the look of a campaign headquarters except that there are no posters of a smiling candidate on the wall. There are six full-time employes, mostly veterans of other campaigns. But the key is a network of political people and journalists around the country who call in their news of the day.
"One of the most important things is that even though there are news digests at a variety of places around town, they are not being created by people with a sense of politics," said Ron Rosenblith, president of the hotline.
Rosenblith, who came to the hotline from his position as administrative assistant to Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), said that nobody on the staff is allowed to be associated with an active campaign. The founders have also worked for an ideological balance among staff members.
"If Ron were doing it alone, nobody in my party would trust it," Republican Bailey said. "If I were doing it alone, nobody in Ron's party would trust it."
So far, campaigns from both parties seem eager to participate.
John Buckley, press secretary for Republican presidential hopeful Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), said that when he learned that Bush was trying to change national delegate rules in Michigan, "for three consecutive days we put items on the hotline that drew reporters' attention to what the Bush campaign was doing . . . . I firmly believe that if we had not taken our unadulterated uncensored 200 words of complaint to the hotline every day, the news media would not have picked up on it as aggressively as they did."
Some journalists are still wary of the operation, suggesting that it worsens the natural tendency of reporters to think and write alike.
"It feeds into the press' fantasy that the press decides everything," said Boston Globe columnist David Nyhan, who acknowledges that he reads it every morning. "What we say to each other is becoming too important."
Others worry that the hotline staff will weary before the campaign season really begins. "It's a great product and a wonderful little gimmick," Babbitt's press secretary McCurry said. "But sustaining it through November 1988 may be quite a trick. It sounds like a recipe for burnout."
With a year to go before the election, however, Bailey, Craver, Rosenblith and their technological expert, Jeffrey Hallett, a cofounder of the Naisbitt Group, are running strong. And they see the hotline as continuing through spring 1989, providing news on the next president's transition.
"I've been reborn," said Bailey one morning after the hotline had been released to the satellite that makes it available to his new clients. "This is nothing but fun for a political junkie like me."