Welcome to the Jungle! Hughes, Card in Spin Cycle

CORAL GABLES, FLA.—”I’m not going to be definitive,” Mike Littwin said.

Mr. Littwin, a self-identified liberal columnist for the Rocky Mountain News, was in his seat in the presidential debate press center, which had taken over the University of Miami’s “Wellness Center” for the occasion. Signs on the walls urged the assembled reporters and pundits not to hog the unseen exercise machines, and reminded them to “Please RE-RACK your weights.”

The debate hour was drawing nigh, but the big event was shaping up as something of a ghost presence, like the workout equipment. The candidates would be squaring off inside the university’s Convocation Center—separated from the Wellness Center by a street, a parking lot, and some sort of picturesque canal or stream, its surface nibbled into ripples by schools of tiny fish. Save for the royalty (Bill O’Reilly! Greta van Susteren!), the media were to judge the show by watching it on televisions, rows of them. “It makes you wonder why we’re here, exactly,” Mr. Littwin confessed. But the wonderment was–in obedience to the official debate rules–merely rhetorical. The press wasn’t getting anything from George Bush and John Kerry that the public wouldn’t be able to get at the same time. There was, however, other stuff to get.

Hours before Jim Lehrer opened his mouth, the Democratic National Committee was passing out a CD-ROM titled “Bush vs. Reality: Framing the Debate.” The Republicans were countering with a slender black booklet, in monospaced font (wink, wink), listing all the various positions Mr. Kerry had arguably taken on key issues.

At 5 p.m., a stray sheet of paper on a Minolta in the Republican hallway already listed “Breaking Debate Fact #1 . . . Kerry says Iraq families are less safe after the war.” A poster nearby spelled out the authorized “paper order” for press releases: “1. Blue 2. Green 3. Pink 4. Yellow 5. Purple 6. Gold 7. Gray.” Crews were setting up lights and cameras in booths around the edge of a gymnasium, unflinchingly named the “Spin Room.”

Mr. Kerry and Mr. Bush could say what they would. The message that counted would be the one that came from outside the hall: the verdict as to which candidate was the winner.

And the political experts, trained on scheduled events and prepared speeches, were going to have to discover and write up the correct verdict with no time to spare–a talent generally found in other sections of the paper. Mr. Littwin, a Baltimore Sun sportswriter in a previous life, recalled covering the 1991 World Series, in which the Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves went down to the last at-bat night after night.

That, Mr. Littwin said, was real pressure. “You don’t know which way the game is going to go,” Mr. Littwin said. “You’re writing win and lose columns simultaneously, and the game ends 15 minutes before your deadline.” Around him, reporters from East Coast papers thumped away at their laptops, apparently hedging their bets.

Yet even with Rocky Mountain Time on his side, Mr. Littwin said he would be reluctant to pick a winner. He was in Iowa to see the Dean Scream in person, he said: “I wrote about two paragraphs in the middle of the column about it.” When he went on the radio, the next day, he was startled to find it was all the hosts wanted to talk about.

But in breaking politics news, the danger of missing the bandwagon is exceeded only by the danger of jumping on the wrong one. At the Democratic National Convention, Mr. Littwin said, he was sure at first that Mr. Kerry’s acceptance speech had been a dud. “The more people I talked to, the less sure I became,” he said. So he toned down his criticism. If he’d stuck with his gut reaction, he said, then when the conventional wisdom shifted, “I’d have looked much smarter in retrospect.”

It’s hard to wait for retrospect, however. Shortly after Mr. Kerry and Mr. Bush got down to business, Republican runners began roaming the hall, delivering Breaking Debate Facts in blue, green, pink, yellow, and so on. Democrats countered, albeit less frequently and only in blue. Debate staffers joined in, armed with plain white partial transcripts (“XXX alliance is strong. BUSH: That’s the plan for victory”).

The candidates were still on stage, their dual blessings on America still warm, when the press broke for the Spin Room. The Republicans were waiting, hoisting signs to proclaim interview opportunities: REED, GILLESPIE, DEVENISH. “I thought the president did well,” Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie told reporters. “. . . Senator Kerry failed to close the credibility gap,” he told reporters.

Simultaneously, within earshot, the spiky-haired Bush-Cheney communications director Nicole Devenish uttered the words “credibility gap.” Mr. Gillespie then noted it was “very telling” that Mr. Kerry had failed to mention terrorism when he cited nuclear proliferation as the greatest danger facing the country, and echoed Mr. Bush’s complaint that Mr. Kerry had called the Iraq invasion a mistake while saying American troops weren’t dying for a mistake.

(A young man passed, talking into a cell phone. “They didn’t, personally, strike me as new contradictions,” he was saying.) In case Mr. Gillespie and Ms. Devenish hadn’t gotten to anyone, Ralph Reed declared that John Kerry hadn’t cleared the “threshold of credibility.”

But by that point, the Democrats had arrived, though their interview availability signs were one-fifth the size of the Republicans’. Democratic National Committee Terry McAuliffe declared cheerfully that Mr. Bush “was arrogant, peeved, annoyed the entire night.”

Mr. Kerry inconsistent? Yeah, yeah. Mr. Bush angry and discombobulated? Hmm . . . Near Mr. McAuliffe, someone asked George P. Bush why his uncle had kept faltering and pausing. The junior Mr. Bush conceded that there had been “brief pauses,” then offered the theory that the hesitation reflected how the president “struggles with these issues on a daily basis.” Under another Democratic sign, meanwhile, Marine Lieut. Andrew Borene–an Iraq veteran, in the flesh–was offering his own analysis of the current Commander-in-Chief’s debate performance: “A bit peeved, annoyed . . . [He] tangled up some sentences at key times.” If it had been a baseball game, Mr. Borene said, “clearly Kerry won.” And if the debate were a baseball game, then what would that make the contest in the Spin Room? Mr. Borene looked around and chuckled. “This is a mid-season press conference,” he said. Soon after, the question of the president’s temper reached Ms. Devenish. “My dad watching was probably irritated, too,” she said, then told a reporter that Mr. Bush’s irritation was “your characterization,” not her own.

Ms. Devenish steered her end of the conversation back to those inconsistencies of Mr. Kerry’s. “How do you gain credibility” when you can’t keep your stories straight? she asked. “How do you gain credibility . . . ?”

The reporters had other things on their minds: On one of the networks, all six members of a panel of undecided voters had “said they’re now with Kerry.” The president, Ms. Devenish replied, doesn’t govern according to polls. The Democrats were reporting five online donations per second–did Ms. Devenish have GOP figures? No, but she had more analysis: “I think there was only one candidate who spoke from the heart,” she said. “Kerry is a world-class debater,” Ms. Devenish added. “Senator Kerry is a very good debater,” White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card said, on the other side of the gym. What was up with all the mid-debate press releases? “Communications is very important,” Mr. Card said. “That’s why I’m talking to you.”

The Democrats’ communications had begun to get a little loosey-goosey. “Kerry passed test No. 1,” said Senator Bob Graham, the defeated Floridian entry in the Democratic primaries. “He is presidential. Now he has a chance to pass [test] No. 2: Is he superior to George W. Bush.” But enough of that. Had The Observer, Mr. Graham wanted to know, reviewed his book, Intelligence Matters? “It was the undercurrent of much of the debate tonight,” he said. “And I can point to the pages.” Mr. Graham’s fellow primary contestant, Gen. Wesley Clark, was so satisfied with the night’s events as to wax Socratic. “Did I see right?” Gen. Clark asked. “[Bush] was leaning into the lectern, slumped over?” The Bush troops were stuck with the telling. Karen Hughes, the president’s all-purpose adviser, had picked up Ms. Devenish’s thread. “What they were able to see tonight was the president’s heart and his strength,” Ms. Hughes said, focusing on virtues available to the tongue-tied. Mr. Kerry, she added, had failed to “establish some credibility on the issue of Iraq.”

What about the irritation? “I think what you saw on his face [was] irritation at his opponent’s misrepresentations,” Ms. Hughes said. Amid the questions about Mr. Kerry’s flash-poll victories (accurate polling “takes several days,” Ms. Hughes cautioned), a reporter asked about the Spin Room itself. “There’s nothing quite like it,” Ms. Hughes said.

The clock moved on toward midnight; the post-debate session approached the length of the debate itself. The crowd around Ms. Hughes dropped a few members and added some new ones. How about this Spin Room? a newcomer asked. “Isn’t this fun?” Ms. Hughes replied. “There’s nothing quite like it.”