By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Catching up with the 2008 campaign

Because I no longer make my living by covering media and politics full-time, I’ve been less engaged in the 2008 presidential campaign than in any I can remember. So when I got a chance to head north on Monday to catch a Rudy Giuliani event, I leapt. My editor at the Guardian, Richard Adams, provided me with a letter in case I needed to produce credentials. And we were off.

My traveling companion was Seth Gitell, an old friend who’s covering presidential politics for the New York Sun. Gitell is probably best known for his stint as Boston Mayor Tom Menino’s spokesman, but before that he covered politics for the Boston Phoenix. He and I covered the Republican and Democratic national conventions together for the Phoenix in 2000, probably the most fun I’ve ever had in the news business.

We arrived at Goss International in Durham, N.H., where Giuliani was scheduled to speak, ridiculously early. The only evidence that we’d come to the right place was a lone campaign worker who was planting Giuliani signs in the snow. So we headed over to a coffee house near the University of New Hampshire campus to kill some time.

When we got back, the second-floor function room, next to the company cafeteria, was beginning to fill with reporters. It was a decent-size media crowd — not exactly what you’d call a horde, but respectable, especially given the consensus that Giuliani, despite leading in the national polls for months, was starting to see it slip away.

The media were kept at a distance. Giuliani was scheduled to speak at 12:45 p.m., but he didn’t arrive until about 1:15. What appeared to be several hundred Goss employees had filled the room, leading to a quip or two about whether they’d be allowed to extend their lunch break so that Rudy wouldn’t be speaking to an empty room. There were also a few jokes among reporters about the irony of covering an event at a company that manufactures printing presses, not exactly a growth industry these days.

Finally, Giuliani walked out onto the stage, wearing a black suit, a white shirt and a red striped tie — no soft tones for the Mayor of America. He made a lame joke about ink from Goss presses rubbing off on his hands, and then — moving back and forth in front of a sign that said “Tested. Ready. Now.” — spoke for about five minutes. Giuliani offered some free-market boilerplate about taxes and government regulation and, of course, revisited his favorite theme, “the terrorists’ war against us.” After that, he took questions from the employees — certainly not from the press — for about a half-hour.

Giuliani cuts an impressive figure on stage. He has a knack for coming off as conversational and informal while still managing to speak in complete sentences. Compared to the perpetually stiff John Kerry or the perpetually tongue-tied George W. Bush, he comes off well indeed. The content of what he said, though, seemed tired even to me — and I was seeing him in person for the first time. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be one of the reporters traveling with Giuliani, like Brian Mooney of the Boston Globe, who wrote a blog item on the event but nothing for the print edition.

Illegal immigration? Give legal immigrants “tamper-proof photo ID” cards. Public education? A school choice plan that would “empower parents” and, in particular, “empower poor parents.” Health insurance? “We need a private competitive market with millions of people in it, then costs will come down.” Someone even asked him to tell everyone about what 9/11 was like, a pitch so fat that you might have thought the questioner was a plant.

“There’s no way I can describe how difficult it was to get through the day,” Giuliani began before describing, in some detail, how difficult it was to get through the day.

I don’t mean to be quite as dismissive as this sounds. Giuliani is a smart, serious candidate with proven leadership qualities and a whole lot of personal baggage. He’s as interesting a story as there is in this campaign. But these town-meeting-style gatherings, safe and innocuous, don’t exactly give people what they need to know before walking into the voting booth.

For reporters who were present, the Giuliani story of the day was very different from what the candidate was talking about in front of the Goss employees. From the beginning of the campaign, Giuliani has pursued an odd strategy of hoping to do just well enough to get by in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire while rolling to victory later, in big states like Florida, where voters are presumably more tolerant of a thrice-married moderate Republican. In pursuing this strategy, Giuliani has seemingly ignored the first rule of momentum: A lead in the national polls and in the big states tends to disappear overnight if you get creamed in Iowa and New Hampshire.

On Monday, the press was buzzing over news that Giuliani was cutting back on his advertising in New Hampshire. So a seeming throwaway line at the end of his talk — “I’ll be spending some of my Christmas holiday here in New Hampshire” — came across as at least somewhat significant. His New Hampshire campaign chairman, Wayne Semprini, reinforced that message afterwards, telling reporters, “Rudy Giuliani is not pulling out of New Hampshire.”

We milled around for a bit afterwards. Seth is a semi-regular on New England Cable News, and he did an interview with NECN’s Brad Puffer in which he said, “They [the Giuliani campaign] are still trying to have a foothold in New Hampshire and not abandon it. When you exclusively focus on a national campaign and don’t concentrate on Iowa and New Hampshire, then you may not get to have a national campaign.” (Seth’s piece for the Sun is here.)

David Saltonstall, a Massachusetts native and alumnus of the MetroWest Daily News who’s covering Giuliani for the New York Daily News, told me, “The news going into this news cycle is that Rudy’s withdrawing his ad dollars from New Hampshire.” Saltonstall saw Giuliani’s remarks as an attempt to have it both ways: “He’s walking kind of a tightrope with voters here, I think.”

All of this has precisely nothing to do with whether Giuliani would make a good president. Yet at this stage of the campaign, that’s what the media focus on — who’s up, who’s down, the polls, the fundraising. It’s not that the press never does substantive coverage (indeed, the Globe’s Mooney did a terrific profile of Giuliani in early November). It’s just that, late in the game, when ordinary voters finally start to tune in, the journalistic instinct is to cover the campaign as though it were a sporting event.

So let me indulge. Right now, on the Republican side, it looks as though Mitt Romney and John McCain have put themselves in the best position to win, assuming Mike Huckabee fades the way everyone thinks he will. Unless Giuliani can turn it around, he’ll be remembered as the winner of 2007 in an election that won’t be held until 2008. At least that’s what I wrote for the Guardian. (I gave Fred Thompson some props, too, so I may have been hallucinating at the time.)

Then again, who knows what will happen? It’s not as though anyone has actually voted yet.

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  1. mike_b1

    Ah, the fun of the horse race. Dan, your item here is interesting for its perspective on the process, but what you perhaps unwittingly reveal is a couple inherent problems with the media.1. Is the [candidate] going dark? That’s a reporter’s story, not a reader’s story. Whether a candidate is giving up on a state is irrelevant to said candidate’s platform and should have zero impact on a voter’s decision. Yet the press buries candidates who do so, implicitly implying that a vote for that person is a waste.2. The stump speech. Yes, it seems tired to you, as it would to any reporter who has covered national campaigns. Why wouldn’t it? There’s only so many issues one can bring up in five or 10 minutes, and only so many positions on those issues one can have (John Kerry notwithstanding). More to the point, the candidate’s message at these forums isn’t directed to the press. He or she is speaking to the voters, none of whom are following him or her from stop to stop. The media will bury the candidate who rolls out the same lines, yet also derides them for not “staying on message.” Yawn. Perhaps it’s time the press ceases treating each campaign stop like its Gettysburg II.

  2. Dan Kennedy

    “Unwittingly”? I think I was fairly witting about it, Mike.One of these days — maybe real soon — I’m going to write a post about what’s really wrong with the way the media cover politics.It’s not that they don’t give sufficient attention to the candidates’ ultrasafe, poll-tested, often-insincere issues. Give me break.No, it’s that they don’t sufficiently come to grasp with their experience and leadership capabilities. Giuliani is a real leader, and he’s got a track record, both good and bad.

  3. Man who's not a rudy fan

    “Leadership” is a quirky concept, though, Dan. For example, Just because you’re a good leader doesn’t mean you’ll be an effective President. In my experience, a good leaders usually has three key characteristics:1. They’re ridiculously charismatic. “Sell refrigerators to Eskimos” kind of thing.2. They are confident well past the point of arrogance, but the charisma usually masks the arrogance part.3. They have the kind of memory that is a steel trap for remembering a wide variety of specific data points. In such a way that they can effortlessly recall the data and integrate into whatever they’re saying at the moment. The obvious application is talking points, but I suspect the kind of memory that’s good for this is the same kind of memory that’s good with peoples’ names. “Never forget a face” kind of thing.I don’t know all THAT much about him, but I believe Giuliani meets these criteria. However, his track record of decisions indicates questionable judgment at best. Putting the emergency management center in the World Trade Center even after the 1993 bombings? Real swift move there, Rudy.Hillary, OTOH, has frequently shown excellent judgment…especially if you filter your appraisal of it through a Machiavellian lens. But her charisma is lacking (for a Presidential candidate anyways) so she doesn’t come off as a “leader”.The bottom line is that ever since Kennedy vs Nixon (hell, maybe a lot earlier than that) people are going to vote for whom they LIKE, and people like a leader…no matter how unqualified they are.

  4. Dan Kennedy

    Man Who: I was writing quickly. Leadership, experience, judgment and values are all more important than “issues.” For instance, who cares about the differences between Clinton’s and Obama’s health-care plans if they are both committed to doing something significant about health care? Once in office, she or he will do whatever seems sensible and doable at that time. Who’s more likely to get it done? That should be the standard.

  5. Neil

    It isn’t late in the game–the conventions aren’t until next August and the election itself is still nearly a year away. And already it’s all horse race, all the time. I tune it all out. I don’t think the media focuses on it because that’s what the public is interested in, I think they focus on the micro-strategy of the week, who’s up, who’s down, ad spending, “leadership”, who can “turn it around” etc., because it’s easier than figuring out how to write about issues in an interesting way. Even Mooney’s profile, which tells us Giuliani started an opera club in high school and is full of assertions about what a leader he is, makes no mention of his position on any issues of the day.It’s all “…and it’s Huckabee ahead of Seabiscuit by a nose around turn three, does he have the stamina to…”.

  6. Dan Kennedy

    Uh, Neil … the Iowa caucuses are Jan. 3. The New Hampshire primary is Jan. 8. I was writing about Giuliani in the context of what N.H. voters need to know. In any case, we’ll know who the two nominees are by the end of January. It’s late — very late.

  7. Neil

    Oh my god the Iowa caucus is Jan 3! I had no idea. I better start paying attention to all this opinion about who’s got “leadership” then. It’s just that, late in the game, when ordinary voters finally start to tune in, the journalistic instinct is to cover the campaign as though it were a sporting event.The passive voice. This doesn’t follow. If it’s so late, isn’t it all the more reason to get the issues out there, while there’s still time, and ordinary voters have finally tuned in? If not now, when? Seabiscuit eases back at the quarter-pole, will he have enough left to… is no help. What we need are mixed sporting metaphors to help us decide instead, like this one from Huffington Post:As we race into the most compact primary schedule ever and the top two candidates for the Democrats continue to dominate the polls, I’ve realized that campaigns are a lot like ball games: the key ingredient that makes them both so much fun to watch is…The baseball race. Great stuff! Just what we need.

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