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A Ticket campaign diary: A day on the trail with Barack Obama

November 4, 2008 |  5:12 am

As everybody who's never been one knows, the life of a political campaign reporter is one of the most glamorous in the world, traveling to diverse places on their employer's tab, eating nothing but the finest foods, enjoying the leisurely schedule of a modern presidential campaign and sleeping in sometimes as late as 6 a.m.

Our colleague, The Times' Seema Mehta, has been all over with many of the candidates this campaign year, actually about 14 months-worth.

Last night you read her Ticket report on a hectic cross-country day with Alaska Governor and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Recently she was on the road with Barack Obama's campaign. (That's Seema eavesdropping on Obama's cellphone call in the photo.)

So, with the trail work ending and the voting underway, we asked her to keep a diary of one day on the campaign trail to give Ticket readers a feel for what goes on inside the stoDemocrat presidential candidate and Illinois freshman senator Barack Obama makes a campaign call under the watchful eye of The Times Seema Mehta keeping a diary of a campaign day for Top of the Ticketries and behind-the-scenes.

Here's her report:

1:22 a.m. The Obama campaign just returned from Hawaii, where the candidate was visiting his gravely ill grandmother.

The press receives our morning call time via e-mail at this God-awful hour.

7:30 a.m. My alarm clock and BlackBerry alarms go off nearly simultaneously. The amber sun light is streaming into my 17th-floor room at the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino in Reno.

But I hit the snooze button. Twice. Every stolen moment of sleep is precious.

7:45 a.m. The phone rings; it’s the wake-up call. I always have three forms of wake-up; like most of us on the trail, I have an obsessive fear of missing the bus and getting left behind somewhere.

I finally drag myself out of bed and rush downstairs to ....

... meet the rest of the press corps traveling with Obama.

8:15 a.m. I drop my luggage off with Eric Lesser, the young man who handles the campaign and press luggage with undefeatable cheer. We’re all demanding and bombard him with special requests, and our bags always arrive right where they need to be.

8:30 a.m. The press corps lays its equipment -– our laptops and TV cameras, purses and briefcases –- in lines for the security sweep. Large trained police dogs (they are so cute!) are brought in every morning to sniff through our gear, while Secret Service agents wand our bodies with handheld metal detectors.

The agents serve three-week stints with the candidates. When the last crew rotated off the plane earlier this week, the two long-time press agents headed to the back of the plane to say good-bye to the reporters and camera crews, some of whom had spent months sharing planes and buses.

They were greeted by loud applause and cheers. The agents have a tough job -– balancing candidate safety with the media’s need for access -– and, though there are definitely occasional tiffs, they almost always do a fantastic job.

We sit on the press bus for more than an hour. I share my wedding pictures (from Sept. 15, 2007, a couple weeks before I went on the trail for the primaries) with a recently engaged newspaper reporter.

9:32 a.m. We drive to Peccole Stadium at the University of Nevada’s Reno campus, an outdoor rally site that attracts more than 11,000.

10:05 a.m. Obama takes the stage, and sharpens his criticism of rival John McCain, comparing him with George W. Bush nearly two dozen times in a 30-minute rally at the baseball stadium.

About 15 minutes in: The microphone and power go out. Robert Gibbs, an Obama spokesman, jokingly e-mails reporters: “Sorry about the generator but I just had to unplug something to charge my BlackBerry.”

The candidate wanders into the crowd, shaking hands with supporters. When the juice is restored, he tells the crowd, "I told you folks were having trouble making their electricity bills. Either that or somebody from the McCain campaign kicked our plug out of the socket.”

Then, he adds: "That was just a joke guys, there's no evidence of foul play."

10:38 a.m. Obama ends his speech, and reporters move to file time, which basically means we try to e-mail information, quotes, pictures or video about the event to our various media outlets, all while trying to scarf some Mexican food that serves as lunch. It seems wrong to be eating fajitas and guacamole before noon. But you never know when the next meal might come.

Less than an hour later, we leave the university and head to the airport to board Obama’s chartered 757. It sounds more glamorous than it is. The candidate, as well as his GOP rival, rarely speak to the national press whose companies spend thousands of dollars every day trailing the candidate’s every waking moment.

11:50 a.m.: We arrive at the Reno airport, drive onto the tarmac and board the plane, dubbed “Air Obama” by reporters. The candidate shakes hands with local officials before boarding the plane without comment. Wheels up a half-hour later to Las Vegas.

1:18 p.m. We land in Las Vegas, and motorcade over to Bonanza High School, where 18,000 supporters have gathered on the football field. Obama delivers his standard stump speech, pledging to provide tax relief to the middle class, create jobs and provide healthcare access for all.

Even though he’s ahead in many polls, Obama urges his supporters to take nothing for granted, and knock on doors, make phone calls, and make sure their neighbors to go to the polls.

“Nevada, if you can vote for me, I promise you we will win Nevada [and] we will win this general election and you and I together, we’ll change the country and we’ll change the world.”

3:50 p.m. After 15 minutes of file time, we drive back to the airport. Takeoff: 4:30.

Next stop: Albuquerque. A TV crew member recently celebrated her birthday, so some Obama staffers bring a birthday cake to the back of the plane and she blows out the candles after the entire press section sings “Happy Birthday.”

We later eat stuffed chicken breast and vegetable risotto for dinner. It sounds better than it is. Sadly, plane food is plane food, even on a private plane. I’m really not doing justice to the copious amounts of food on the trail. Both campaigns feed reporters constantly, and warm cookies or a brownie in the afternoon can help you get through that exhausting afternoon.

But between the abundance of food and the lack of gym time, some reporters, myself included, gain the equivalent of the Freshman 15 on the road. Not good.

7:05 p.m.: We disembark and board the press bus. We're running ahead of schedule. Or we were, until the cargo door on the plane gets stuck, meaning the television cameramen can’t get their gear. We sit on the tarmac for an hour until a mechanic gets the door unjammed.

8:20 p.m.: We arrive at the University of New Mexico, where comedian George Lopez is warming up the crowd, 35,000-strong on Johnson Field and another 10,000 to 15,000 waiting outside. We catch the tail-end of Lopez’s remarks, something about enjoying fried bologna?

Joined by Lopez and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Obama is targeting the Latino vote, which could be the deciding factor in the New Mexico race. Latinos make up 40% of the population, but only 30% of the electorate.

“Latino community, you hold this election in your hands. You can be the swing vote all across the country,” Obama says.

“It is so important for us to turn out this election. The only reason each of us is here today is someone fought for us. ... We can not fail, not this time.”

9:43 p.m.: Obama has wrapped up his speech, and I send my feed back to Los Angeles. We board the press bus and motorcade to the hotel.

But motorcades can vary –- they can be fast and efficient, or dangerous (such as one I was in this weekend where speeds topped 90 mph and we ended up on two wheels, swerving into the other lane to avoid slamming into the van in front of us).

This one is slow as molasses, and it takes a half-hour to get to the Doubletree less than three miles away.

I check in, have a drink with a newspaper friend and do some work.

Then, of course, I set all those alarms and wake-up calls. The fun starts all over again in the hotel lobby barely seven hours later.

12:17 a.m.: Lights out.

-- Seema Mehta

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Photo credit: Emmanuel Dunand / Agence France-Presse