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On the Trail -- Inside a Times story -- II

July 26, 2007 |  2:02 am

This is another in a continuing series of interviews with Times correspondents about life on the campaign trail these days and how they go about doing their work. A previous interview with The Times' Scott Martelle is available here.

Fausset If you have any questions you'd like asked, leave them in the Comments section below and we'll get to them in future interviews.

Today we talk with Richard Fausset, The Times' 37-year-old Atlanta bureau chief, who recently spent three days on the road with Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards to produce this story and this collection of Edwards remarks.

Q: You've covered the L.A. mayoral race. How do you know what to look for when covering a national campaign?

A: Well, this was Edwards' poverty tour from New Orleans through the Mississippi Delta into Arkansas and Memphis, up to Cleveland and into Appalachia. But we didn't want to do a poverty policy story so much as a piece that gave a feel for Edwards on the campaign trail. What's he like? How do people relate to him?

Q: And what did you find?

A: The first day in the meetings he was more like a lawyer taking depositions, asking a lot of questions about their situations. The people looked like they were being interrogated. But as the trip wore on, he really warmed up and began to weave into his speeches the stories of the people he'd met. He's really a good speaker, able to read a crowd and its emotional timbre and adjust his remarks accordingly. I heard essentially the same speech three times, but each time he made it seem fresh and relevant to the people at hand.

He's very professional and controlled, though. There were no little gaffes or moments of unexpected openness.

Q: Did he mingle with the crowds a lot?

A: You know, he says he likes that, but I didn't see the delight. He didn't do that much. A few handshakes and smiles here and there, and then we were off to the next stop. It was a crammed schedule. Elizabeth Edwards seems to like that more.

Q: What was she like?

A: She's quite a compelling character. And they're very much a team. She was only along the first day. But he'd be walking down the street talking with officials, and she'd wander off on her own and find someone on the sidewalk to talk to and call her husband over to meet.

Q: How did you travel?

A: Bus and chartered plane. And I got 20 minutes with Edwards in a van on the way to one airport.

Q: Was there much off the record?

A: He'd come back in the plane in the evening and have a beer and chat with the reporters. You got to see him a little more relaxed. You know, it's an artificial relationship by necessity between reporters and politicians, and I don't want to get too close to them.

Q: What did he talk about?

A: That was off the record.

Q: In those times, did you feel you got to know him better, and did that flavor your story?

A: Yes, for sure.

Q: Tell me about a typical day.

A: It was brutal. The first day started at 5:15 a.m. in the New Orleans hotel lobby to go to a taping for "Good Morning America." And it ended at 1 a.m. the next day at a Holiday Inn in Cleveland. And we'd gone through Mississippi, into Arkansas and Memphis, to barbecues and churches and youth centers.

Q: How was he received?

A: Well, early in the trip I got the impression that the people were really for Clinton or Obama but pleased that he was interested. By the time we got to Appalachia he was more at home and talking about being a millworker's son, and they sensed that too.

Q: Any particular incidents stick out in your mind?

A: A couple. In Memphis there was a Baptist choir that was one of the best I've ever heard. They were rocking and swaying. I stood back by the drummer and you could feel the emotion wash through the crowd. Then in Appalachia he had an encounter with a man who had a cleft palate. After 50 years he'd had an operation and could speak, though it was still difficult to understand him. He had a tough time. But after the man spoke, Edwards seemed genuinely moved and hugged him. And then he used that man's story in the debate the other night.

Q: Then came the writing.

A: Yeah, I'd been transcribing my notes all along. You always have too much stuff to use. I wrote the top third of the story on Thursday and flew back to Atlanta. I talked with my editor. Friday I fixed the top and finished the rest. I sent in twice as much as we could use, so we had a lot of cutting. Friday night it was on the website and Saturday in the paper. I wish I could have gotten more of Appalachia in, but I think you do get a sense of the man.

Q: Thanks a lot.

--Andrew Malcolm

Photo: Richard Fausset