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A new tactic for straight-talking McCain? Dump the traveling press

July 10, 2008 |  3:00 am

One of the most important issues to any presidential campaign is controlling the message transmitted to the voting public through the media covering each day's events.

One of the biggest threats to controlling that message is the media itself, especially the national media that pays a fortune to travel with the candidates on theirRepublican presidential nominee to be John McCain waits to make an entrance for a speech in Pittsburgh chartered planes, buses and vans. And watches and listens and questions intensely for any change or even apparent change in the campaign, as is its perceived duty.

Another threat to controlling that message is the candidate himself -- or as Hillary Clinton learned last fall and winter, the candidate's spouse himself. They get off course talking or scrapping about something else and the day's carefully crafted message on, say, creating jobs gets completely lost.

As an obvious part of the campaign discipline newly imposed on Sen. John McCain by his newly imposed campaign manager, Steve Schmidt, the senator kept bringing the conversation back to economics in virtually every discussion Wednesday. Give the political freewheeler one day's gold star for good behavior.

Another favorite way to control the message is to separate the candidate from the often-bored national press, which has heard the same themes, details and jokes over and over again. And expose him/her instead to the local media, where a presidential candidate is by definition much bigger news. Even Jim Gilmore or Chris Dodd can get them excited.

Although it was a local reporter who caught an embarrassed (and privately angered) candidate ...

... George W. Bush not knowing the name of Pakistan's leader back in 1999, the locals typically are less aggressive than traveling reporters and less aware of a candidate's inconsistencies.

Yes, OK, and to be honest, the local folks can be a bit wide-eyed too in the presence of a famous candidate that the national press sees every hour with his tie down saying the same old thing. A five-minute interview on local issues with a TV reporter from KBOO in Montana is gonna get five minutes of airtime repeated all over that state today, tonight and probably tomorrow too. Not so with the national press.

So what happened Wednesday when the newly directed Straight Talk Express bus of the McCain campaign flew through some Pittsburgh suburbs where, surely by coincidence, an awful lot of Hillary Clinton supporters reside? Well, McCain ditched most of his national press corps and, instead, took five questions from the national and local pools.

It didn’t appear to be an impromptu gathering either. The campaign went to the trouble of inviting members of the local press—evident by the live-streaming feed to CNN by a local affiliate. The advance team had efficiently set up a tent, television quality lighting and a full sound system. The candidate appeared before a podium with an American flag behind him.

But nearly all the national reporters traveling with McCain—including reporters and producers from the major television networks and newspapers—were cooling their heels on McCain’s plane, annoyed as the 24/7 focus of their working lives covered topics from Iran's missile tests to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act  beyond their earshot. They did get their questions in later -- a pool of national reporters (including our colleague Maeve Reston) traveled on McCain's bus Wednesday afternoon en route from a Huntington, W. Va., airport to a Portsmouth, Ohio, town hall -– where McCain took questions from national reporters for 35 minutes. 

Still, it's a tricky business for campaigns to pull these kinds of tricks. Yes, they get more control and they do provide a minimal pool report of what happened. But they also depend heavily on the goodwill of the traveling media. Frankly, like any traveling circus, a campaign's press contingent has a wide variety of personalities who can be hilarious, demanding and grumpy. But they also are carrying a substantial share of the chartered transportation's huge expense.

After only one or two curt messages from those misled reporters' editors about stories they missed or are late on because they were confined to the plane, the campaign's media folks will find out what a whole load of really grumpy people sound like.

“He took a couple of questions at the end of the tour from the pool,” McCain’s Communications Director Jill Hazelbaker said by way of an e-mailed explanation to Reston. “This will happen occasionally.”

Sounds like a warning.

-- Andrew Malcolm

* Item has been updated.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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