Sometimes it seems like the press and the campaign spin-meisters are locked in a dysfunctional relationship. Amid looming deadlines, campaign staffers shade the truth with aplomb and the press, failing almost every time, tries to trip them up.
It was no different with Barack Obama's handlers.
Sunday night at the final Obama rally of the day, in southside Des Moines, David Axelrod lifts phrases from the stump speech Barack Obama has given not five minutes before to answer press questions. Thrust into the huddle are tiny taper recorders, the most aggressively inserted from a young guy who shadows the Obama Campaign for Hillary Clinton. David Axelrod himself looks like a sitcom dad, both genial and stodgy. Here appearances are deceiving. Axelrod is a master of saying one thing while suggesting another. As reporters press him on the recent deluge of 527 money being spent in Iowa on behalf of John Edwards by outside interest groups, Axelrod maintains that he never said such spending is illegal while insinuating if it isn't it should be. But he says nothing that will pin him to that. Kit Seelye of The New York Times , giving me good advice, tries to pull me away. "It's just spin," she says. "The real story is out talking to people. But then," she adds, with a shrug, "You're afraid you're missing something if you don't stay here and talk to people like David." I stay, fascinated--and let's admit it, drawn to the light of power--and watch reporters scribble the drivel they are being fed. Don't all of us already know that Obama "stands for change" and that his campaign claims to have the strongest grassroots organization in Iowa?
Later that night David Axelrod was still spinning at Centro, a downtown restaurant that's a press and campaign staff hangout. Centro stayed open late to accommodate these seasonal customers, and the place was jammed, charged with rumor and gossip. The word among Democrats now is that Edwards will win, but since the real battle is between Clinton and Obama, that assertion is more strategy than a result of any inside knowledge or polling. Speculation on negotiations between the Clinton and Obama camps and Joe Biden are rife. Who will Biden tell his supporters to choose in the second round of caucus when he is no longer "viable?" David Axelrod claims that no such negotiations are going on, even as the press scoffs.
Monday morning's press conference call with David Plouffe is similarly unenlightening. He reminds us, point by point, how well staffed and funded and anchored in the grassroots the Obama Campaign is nationwide. As he draws us into the larger picture beyond Iowa, the subtext is that even if Barack Obama loses Iowa, he has what it takes on the ground now to win everywhere else. Plouffe feeds us his data:
"In New Hampshire, 44% of the electorate--maybe higher--are Independents. We're flooding the doors in New Hampshire."
"Edwards is polling a very poor third in South Carolina, with no African-American turnout. We believe African-Americans will be 50-55% of the turnout there. We believe we lead by a few points."
"In Nevada, we have 2,000 precinct captains--more than the number of precincts."
"We already have operations in 17 of the 22 states going to the polls Feb. 5."
In talking about California, Plouffe says, "we think that Senator Clinton will have some operation out there."
Plouffe refreshes our memories, in case we have forgotten, that John Edwards has none of these things. He drives his point home with the money. "Let's say the federal matching funds [for Edwards] are 50 million. With what he's spent in Iowa, that leaves 17 million. That's all he can spend through the Democratic Convention." And then, as if in an aside, Plouffe adds, "His [Edwards] special skill is 527's."
Even as he tells us to forget Edwards, Plouffe seldom mentions Clinton. That's the real story, and since I've been hearing so much about her recent transformation into Iowa's Mommy, I'm driving down to Muscatine to catch her. If there's any chance of getting a whiff of what's really going on in the Democratic Iowan mind, it's in the hinterlands. Like Kit Seelye says, that's where the real stories are.