By Zachary Roth
Cleveland, Ohio — Hosting the vice presidential debate last Tuesday seemed to be the biggest thing that’s ever happened to Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, Ohio. The campus teemed with volunteers wearing t-shirts advertising “The Race at Case, October 2-5” (which raised the question of what Cheney and Edwards had said to each other during the debate’s first three days before the press showed up). Packs of supporters of both campaigns flaunted Bush-Cheney hats and Kerry-Edwards placards as if they were going not to a debate but to the big game against Cleveland State.
But at the offices of the Observer, Case’s weekly student newspaper, there was none of the frenetic bustle of a newsroom working overtime. In fact, news editor Greg Hanneman was the only staff member around. The paper’s debate coverage had been assigned at a meeting earlier in the week, he explained, and there was rarely much reason for reporters to be around the office anyway. “It’s all done over email now,” he explained, making Campaign Desk feel like Andy Rooney.
An hour or two before kickoff, the assembled reporters and political operatives were eating beef, boiled potatoes and salad in a room above the university gym. John Delano, reporter for Pittsburgh television station KDKA, told Campaign Desk that he’d had trouble getting credentials to attend. “I don’t think the Commission on Presidential Debates knows what it’s doing,” he said.
Delano also lamented that when he had been sent to cover the 1996 national party conventions, he had had a staff of four. In 2000, it was only three. This time around at the conventions, it had been just him and a cameraman. And they were here only because it was three hours away, he said. When Campaign Desk observed that local TV stations everywhere were shrinking their news budgets, he gave a look that said, Don’t get me started.
Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) was circling the crowded room, awkwardly looking for a place to sit and eat. “Saxby, over here,” Senator Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) shouted, beckoning Chambliss over like a sympathetic high school student in the cafeteria. The junior senator from Georgia looked relieved.
Nearby, DNC chair Terry McAuliffe was drinking coffee to gear up for a heavy night of spinning. “It’s time to get you on TV, Mr. Chairman,” said an aide.
“Who is it?” McAuliffe asked.
“CNN.” And away they went.
By now, reporters were gathering in the airport-hangar-sized half of the gym to which the media had been assigned. It was next to the debate room itself, but sealed off from it, and might as well have been across campus. CNN’s Judy Woodruff appeared, looking frail in a neat green jacket, and trailed by a student volunteer asking for her autograph. “Ya know, I’ve gotta do it on the run, because I’m due on the air,” said Woodruff. She signed without breaking stride.
Print reporters settled themselves in at the endless rows of tables, each with a phone and internet connection. About 20 large TV screens were interspersed throughout the rows. Dick Polman of the Philadelphia Inquirer seemed to be writing as much of his story as possible before the debate began. But after a while, there wasn’t much more to be done. “I’m waiting for Barabak to tell us who won,” he said wryly to a fellow reporter, referring to Mark Barabak of the Los Angeles Times.
Campaign Desk asked Polman what he felt he gained by watching the debate from a TV in a room next door, rather than from home or work, an approach advocated last week by, among others, Adam Nagourney of the New York Times. He said that being there allowed him to “squirrel away ideas for future stories,” and have conversations with political players and other reporters that could ultimately bear fruit. But as for writing tonight’s story, he admitted that he didn’t need to be there: “I’m on deadline, so I’m not gonna have time to run around and listen to spin anyway.”
As if to illustrate Polman’s point, John Harris of the Washington Post spotted Democratic strategist Howard Wolfson, and they quickly fell into shop-talk. Harris asked if Wolfson, who masterminded Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate run, planned to work on her re-election effort in 2006. Wolfson said that if she faced New York governor George Pataki, or former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, both of whom would be tough opponents, then he probably would help out. Finally Harris declared, “I gotta go get in the zone,” and went to sit down next to his Washington Post colleague Dana Milbank.