WASHINGTON — CURVED in his trademark hunch, Larry King is gobbling a plateful of Chinese food, reading the Boston Herald, watching the vice presidential debates on a television 12 inches from his nose, and insisting he can do an interview at the same time.
This is an off-screen version of the mental juggling Mr. King will perform soon on his nightly talk-show - an hour during which his earpiece buzzes with the harried yammering of technical staff and he coolly rides herd on three combative politicos while formulating his next question.
Larry King is the unruffled master of the political universe this campaign season.
His everyman brand of curiosity, which makes "Larry King Live" CNN's most-watched program, was single-handedly responsible for the question that launched Ross Perot's presidential candidacy last February.
Since then, all of the presidential candidates have submitted to King and the growing phenomenon Newsweek has dubbed "Talk Show Democracy" - a live, extended interview format involving audience call-in.
It was across from King that President Bush first raised questions about Gov. Bill Clinton's overseas anti-war protesting and his 1969 visit to Moscow. And King hatched the hypothetical question about how Dan Quayle would counsel his daughter if she had an unwanted pregnancy.
"I like being `The Guy.' [Saying] Fellas! Did you hear this?" King says, smiling.
He likes to leave the busywork of choosing guests to his producers, adding that an earlier radio job broadcasting from a Miami coffee shop taught him how to coax interesting details even from a trash collector.
King claims not to prepare for interviews, saying he prefers to approach a guest like a man on the street would. He says he doesn't ever remember embarrassing himself with a "dumb" question, except early in his career when he asked a Roman Catholic priest how many children he had.
King is guided less by any moral compass or philosophy than by sheer curiosity, he says in "dat" Brooklyn accent tempered by an untrained, born-to-broadcast bass. "I would describe myself as a [Adlai] Stevenson-Cuomo Democrat, but that wouldn't interfere with asking questions because my curiosity outweighs my opinion," he says.
King is often criticized by journalists for going too easy on his political guests, but he has some defenders.
"King understands two things that journalists don't," says Jay Rosen, associate professor of journalism at New York University. "Like it or not, an interview is a cooperative process. Journalists feel good when they embarrass, rattle, or humiliate. It doesn't contribute much to public discourse.
"Second, the key [to King's success] is that he doesn't want to separate himself from ordinary people. The regular guy is the persona he projects, a little awestruck by the people he talks to and genuinely curious."
Indeed, King is like a kid when he talks about the endless parade of people he gets to meet. He's as impressed with Frank Sinatra as he is with any president he has ever interviewed. But in admitting to that sort of reverence for celebrity, he also stresses that he is not a journalist and does not appreciate insults from the journalists who hold "confrontation" as the sacred route to truth.
"It's true that if [Ted] Koppel and I both came running up to a fire and a fireman came out, Koppel's first question would be `What caused this fire?' And mine would absolutely be `Why you wanna fight fires?' "
"It's important to know what caused the fire, but I'm not a newsman. Feelings are my favorite thing to ask about. So to criticize me for something I've been doing for 32 years ... Well ..." he pauses, jutting his lower jaw slightly. "I did something right this year - all these candidates are coming here and they're not elsewhere."
And that's just the beef that "60 Minutes" investigative tough-guy Mike Wallace has with King. "Evening news is out and Larry King is in [for the candidates]. Why? For one, they aren't asked tough questions," Mr. Wallace gripes.
King's "softball questions" are the reason the candidates "aren't trying to break my door down but they are his," Wallace says. And as part of a profile on King scheduled to air Sunday on "60 Minutes," Wallace suggested as much in a call to King's CNN show last month when Ross Perot was a guest.
Wallace, who for all his bluster wrote a dust jacket blurb for King's new childhood memoir, says candidates on "Larry King Live" "get a lot of unedited time, and they get telephone calls and talk directly to people."
But King and media analysts respond that the length of interviews and diverse questions make up for the host's chummy manner with guests.
King, a slightly-built man with a perfect coif, is not shy about pointing out his own talents.
Without a prepared list of questions, he says, he must listen expertly to come up with good ones.
Watching the vice presidential debates, he grew antsy at the moderator's minute-long wind-up to a question. One-sentence questions that get to the point are key to a lively interview, says the host, whose programs are shot through with just that.
Also, you won't hear King ask questions about his guests' personal lives. They're off-limits, he says, noting his sensitivity to the hurt his daughter has suffered over stories about his own past of horsetrack gambling, financial failure, and multiple marriages.