Clinton Recovers, Press Reconsiders Plans for Breakup

010808 clintonnight web Clinton Recovers, Press Reconsiders Plans for BreakupPORTSMOUTH, N.H.—It was the day before the New Hampshire primary, and reporters on the Clinton beat were venting.

“Putting an emotional and physical distance between us and her can harden the heart,” one reporter, who covers Hillary Clinton for a major daily newspaper, said to a few colleagues over coffee and notebooks in a coffee shop, where Mrs. Clinton was about to make an appearance.

After the crushing loss in the Iowa caucuses, the Clinton campaign has tried to improve relations with its discontented press corps by rationing out more access to the candidate.

It’s not clear that it’s working.

“We’re talking about how the press team has been increasingly charming,” one of the younger reporters told a veteran journalist who had just joined the conversation, which was taking place just minutes before the exhaustively reported incident in which Mrs. Clinton appeared to well up with tears in the middle of answering a routine-sounding question.

“Have they been charming?” asked the skeptical veteran, who has covered previous presidential campaigns. “What have they done?”

The point was well taken. There is close to a consensus, not only among reporters, but among people close to the Clinton campaign, that the Clinton media strategy of restricted access and aggressive tactics has not been an effective one.

The one-on-one interviews sprinkled out after campaign events, the coffee hand-delivered by Mrs. Clinton onto the press bus and the decreasingly rare press conferences were all evidence of a post-Iowa thaw in her campaign’s infamously controlling and standoffish relationship with the media.

In the last week, she has taken to patting reporters’ faces like an Italian grandmother, squeezing their arms and calling them “sweetie.”

 

AS THE CANDIDATE herself tries to make up for lost time with suspicious, beaten-down reporters, campaign aides are debating about what went wrong in the first place. But it’s not entirely a lost cause. The new tack has seemed to get Mrs. Clinton, if nothing else, some sympathy.

There was a consensus among the journalists in the Portsmouth diner that Mrs. Clinton’s dismay was genuine when she choked up, and some of them said they felt closer to her for seeing it. After all, her voice cracked precisely as she started talking about how Web sites and media commentators seemed to latch onto her worst moments.

But, as one of the reporters said, “It’s very, very late in the game.”

What’s more, even as Mrs. Clinton was beginning to make nice with the people who cover her, her campaign and surrogates were busy setting the media up as a straw man, aggressively blaming the campaign coverage for the uncertain state of the campaign after Iowa.

As soon as she came to New Hampshire, early in the morning on Jan. 4, Mrs. Clinton suggested that the press had not done enough to vet the records of her opponents, echoing a point her pollster and chief strategist Mark Penn had made when he said it would be “incumbent on the media to do unto others what they have done so effectively with Senator Clinton, which is to really look at her record.”

But that very morning on the campaign plane from Iowa to New Hampshire, even as Mr. Penn was enumerating the failings of the press, old Clinton ally Terry McAuliffe was making an apology of sorts. According to several reporters who had surrounded him to complain about lack of access to the candidate, Mr. McAuliffe answered, “I know—she should be on this plane.”

 

THERE HAS BEEN A running disagreement about press policy within the campaign itself for a while now.

Speaking on background, one senior Clinton campaign official disputed the notion that access to Mrs. Clinton was especially limited and said there had been a program to reach out to the national media “behind the scenes, for over a year.”

“There was no deliberate strategy to run against the media,” said the official. But after being pressed about the indisputable unhappiness of the Clinton-assigned press corps, the official added, “If it was or wasn’t successful, that would be a question for the operational side.”