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Clinton admits planting questions in public forum

November 9, 2007 | 11:54 pm

Hillary Clinton stopped at a bio-diesel plant in Newton, Iowa earlier this week to see alternative fuels in the making and drive home the week's campaign theme of her energy plan. After a tour, the candidate took questions from the crowd.

She called on a young woman. "As a young person," said the well-spoken Muriel Gallo-Chasanoff, "I'm worried about the long-term effects of global warming. How does your plan combat climate change?"

"Well, you should be worried," Clinton replied. "You know, I find as I travel around Iowa that it's usually young people that ask me about global warming."

There's a good reason for that, too. The question was a plant, totally rigged in advance, like a late-night infomercial. Just before the public forum a Clinton staffer had chosen the young woman, a student at Grinnell College, and asked her to ask that specific question. To watch a video of the staged question and the pefectly-formatted response, click here.

Trouble is, the young woman told others and today her account showed up on the Grinnell website, including a mention that the staffer signaled Clinton who to call on.

Tonight, as other campaigns chuckled and hypocritically spread the news far and wide, a Clinton campaign spokesman admitted sheepishly, "On this occasion a member of our staff did discuss a possible question about Senator Clinton's energy plan at a forum. However, Senator Clinton did not know which questioners she was calling on during the event. This is not standard policy and will not be repeated again.”

Perhaps in large urban centers such stage-managed set-ups are acceptable, even expected. But in smalltown Iowa and New Hampshire, where even political opponents run into each other at the Dairy Queen after the high school football game, they take great pride in genuinely meeting candidates face-to-face in living rooms and diners for honest questioning. Rigging a show like this is extremely bad form and Clinton could take a real hit for it, especially since it suits her reputation for being calculating.

But here's the catch. Although other campaigns are righteously denying it tonight, virtually every...

professional presidential campaign plants questions. It's a routine part of preparation for the advance people staging every event.

Not every question is planted, as you can tell from the weird ones that sometimes pop up. But enough are to ensure the campaign gets the necessary rehearsed sound-bite for the TV cameras on the day's theme. The candidate may honestly not know of the plants, but as soon as she/he hears the question, the answer carefully prepared by the political staff comes flowing forth.

Most planters will be far smoother than Clinton's simply grabbing a passing college student. They'll plant questions in advance with known local supporters who can be trusted and, frankly, who are flattered by their moment in the limelight addressing the possible next president in front of friends. They want it to look like their own question.

A twist on this strategy is for another candidate's team to smuggle one of its supporters into an opponent's event to ask an embarrassing question while the cameras roll. That's why attendees are usually screened and tickets issued. (UPDATE: We've been reminded of the very public run-in Clinton had last month in New Hampton, Iowa with Randolph Rolph, a persistent questioner whom she accused of being a plant from another campaign, which he denied. Clinton later apologized.)

So this time the Clinton camp got caught, the latest in a series of stumbles the last couple of weeks. It's embarrassing, at least for the moment. Right now, some clever Clinton communications staffer is no doubt advising her to make a self-deprecating joke about the slip. At the next forum the first questioner she calls on, Clinton should smile and say, "Now, I want to make sure, you're not a plant, are you?"

And the sympathetic audience will laugh and move on. That's how this presidential campaign game is played.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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