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Jason Stanford

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The Ben on the Bus

Posted: 01/20/12 12:46 PM ET

When Rick Perry put a bullet in the corpse that his campaign had become, no one was happier than Ben Philpott's wife, except for maybe his two daughters.

Ben is the radio reporter for the Austin, Texas, public radio station and the Texas Tribune. And for the better or worse part of the last six months, Ben has been on the road with Rick Perry. If you've listened to the news on National Public Radio lately, you've probably heard his voice. It's brought Ben a measure of national fame, but all he can think of is going home now to his wife and two daughters.

Ben and his fellow "embeds" -- or reporters embedded with a campaign -- were looking forward Thursday to being able to play a debate drinking game with actual alcohol. Until then, they had made do with alcohol-free "drinking games" at Perry campaign events to pass the time.

"We all know the way he delivers speeches and the lines that he uses," said Ben. "We were all kind of joking 'Take a shot' like whenever he says 'I would suggest to you,' which is one of his favorite things to say before he says anything on the campaign trail. And we would look at each other and mouth, 'Take a shot.'"

Perry's early exit from the race surprised no one in the country, least of all Ben, who's had a front-row seat for Perry's fall from frontrunner to a candidate who polled within the margin of error to zero percent.

"Actually, I've been expecting him to drop out in South Carolina since 'oops,'" said Ben, who figured Perry's money would run out in South Carolina. "When he said 'oops,' I started to think, 'well he's going to have to drop out at some point."

Having the constant companionship of a traveling press corps can make or break a presidential candidate. In 2000, John McCain became a media darling when he turned his campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express, into his message. McCain would sit around for hours with the press, dropping sardonic one-liners on the record. The love affair between the press and the candidate became so blatant that McCain joked that the press was his base vote.

With Perry, not so much. In Austin, Perry's media relations staff functions mostly as a means to protect the governor from ever interacting with the media. On the road, Perry's press staff was unable to avoid the press so readily when they were sharing the same budget motels.

"I like the Perry press people more than I did before," said Ben. "They have been friendly and helpful and you get to know them more as a person than a bastard who keeps you from getting a quote for your story. Because of that I have a different opinion of them," though he cautioned, "I would not say that I am close (with Perry's staff)."

But still covering the Perry campaign was not The Boys on the Bus. Despite the wall-to-wall coverage of the primary, Ben and the other reporters enjoyed shockingly little access.

"You are allowed to see him when you are allowed to see him," said Ben, who said he got maybe five minutes of access a week. Perry only talked with the press two or three times during his extended bus tour in Iowa, and the only time they were allowed to quote him on the record was when he came onto the bus to talk about his Christmas plans.

"Presidential candidates don't give access anymore," said Ben, who heard reporters on other campaigns had similar experiences.

When I asked whether limiting everyday access magnified the importance of the debates, Ben replied, "It absolutely did" and described a post-"oops" Perry who stayed on message and on schedule, charming voters at every stop.

"It just didn't matter," said Ben, who said he that he talked to countless voters who said some version of "I really like Perry, but he cut his own throat in the debates."

"What he did in Iowa should have moved the needle," said Ben, but Perry came into his own too late for it to matter.

"I think I've gained 10 pounds, and especially since (colleague) John Aielli had a heart attack I've had it in my head that I was about to have a heart attack," said Ben, who said he was looking forward to "getting home, getting some sleep, and going to the doctor."

 
 
 

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