As he flits across the South in search of "Super Tuesday" votes, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) counts it a good day if he can touch down in five different media markets. Often he'll alight just long enough for an airport "press availability." Then, like a political moth, he'll fly off to the next warm television light.
For the presidential candidates seeking maximum exposure before the March 8 regional megaprimary, it's the season of the "Tarmac Campaign."
"Here's the typical scenario," said news director Perry Boxx of KOCO-TV, the candidate-besieged ABC affiliate in Oklahoma City. "Pat Robertson sets down at Will Rogers World Airport at 9 o'clock at night. He has a brief rally at the airport with friends and supporters and is back in the air and gone by 10:30 that night . . . .
"Dick Gephardt's been in and out several times, and so has Al Gore," Boxx added. "There's so damn many of 'em, I can't keep up."
"It's not just a tarmac campaign, but that's inevitably one element of it," said Gore campaign press secretary Arlie Schardt. "But every day, at least twice, he's going into cities, into actual locations, and participating in some sort of activity."
It is a hallmark of the Super Tuesday race -- in which four major Democrats are competing across 20 states and one U.S. territory, and four Republicans are running in 17 states -- that a candidate can be proud if he manages to visit an "actual location."
Because most of the contenders lack the cash to make effective commercial buys across the region, they must attract news coverage from the greatest number of television stations over the widest geographical area in the shortest time.
"At this point it's better to have quantity over quality," said Democratic political consultant Mandy Grunwald, who is presidentially unaligned. "It's easier to come up with an attack line that you can repeat in 20 different airports than trying to stage a video extravaganza in 20 different media markets."
Often the reward is just a "45 VO sound bite," as news director Boxx calls a 45-second video package in which an aspiring president is seen but seldom heard within the anchorperson's "voice-over."
Boxx might be better disposed toward Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), who concluded two days of Oklahoma campaigning yesterday. "At least he's doing something," Boxx said. "He's going to a grain elevator in Enid -- not just sitting at the airport."
Given the high demand for air time, a candidate's chances to make the news can be immeasurably improved by strategic scheduling -- in itself a science and an art.
"It's strange brew, and a whole lot of things go into the pot," said Paul Risley, press scheduler for candidate Gore, who began Tuesday morning in Richmond with a visit to a medical facility -- the day's big photo opportunity -- and then pressed on with a "Kentucky fly-around" of four media markets.
"We're probably spending about 50 percent of our time on the road with purely press things: live shots, press availabilities, media opportunities, rallies and field events," Risley said. "Naturally, we always do the abject political things, like endorsements, in the morning, so we can get on the network feeds by noon . . . . The other part of that strategy is to pick those regions, states, counties, cities and towns where we are focusing our campaign."
For Jesse L. Jackson (D), campaigning is a matter of "consistently hitting our target of three to four markets a day," although usually at sites miles from the tarmac, his campaign manager Gerald Austin said.
For Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D), "The question is sometimes as simple as, 'Can we get there on time?' " said his scheduling director, Mindy Lubber. She was arranging for her candidate, who played catcher in high school, to venture from tarmac to turf yesterday morning and toss the ball around with the Boston Red Sox at their spring training camp in Winter Haven, Fla. "That's meant only for television," she said, but added that Dukakis was to devote the rest of his day to more substantive, less picturesque exertions.
"You do like good pictures," said Peter Teeley, Vice President Bush's campaign press secretary. "But the message is more important."
As the best-heeled Super Tuesday contender, Bush needn't fly about as much as his rivals, according to his campaign manager, Lee Atwater. "We've been scheduling him effectively for the last three years, so we don't have to make as many stops this week as a guy like Dole," Atwater said. "And we've got more presence via paid television than any of the rest of the candidates."
But most contenders, like Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), are subjected to the constant stress of "wheels up" and "wheels down" as they hurtle toward Super Tuesday.
"I like to do something that's thematic or interesting or looks good," said Gephardt's director of scheduling advance, Barry Wyatt, who Tuesday had his candidate in Plains, Ga., for a visually inviting tete-a-tete with former president Jimmy Carter. "Basically you are trying to reinforce the message we're using in the campaign with the picture as well as the words he is saying."
Wyatt added that it's hard to be thematic or interesting at an airport.
"I do not like tarmac events, and we almost never do them," he insisted. "I don't think they do much for you. People get a sense that the candidate is coming into a community strictly to blitz the media."