McCain's free speech may alter way campaigns are run

Even before the post-mortems on campaign strategy begin in the wake of today's balloting, many political analysts already agree on one thing.

Win or lose, the free-wheeling access Sen. John McCain has granted the media is likely to change how many campaigns are run in the future.

From Jay Leno to local cable channels to the tell-all informality on the "Straight Talk Express," Mr. McCain has established a new standard for openness with reporters.

Clearly, the way he deals with the press has helped propel his insurgent candidacy at various points in the campaign. Among other things, the free - and often favorable - coverage was worth the equivalent of millions of dollars of air time at moments when his campaign didn't have much cash.

But the openness has also caused problems for McCain, and analysts looking for early lessons from the 2000 campaign say that not every candidate in the future will be able to pull off the high-wire act of dealing so unguardedly with the national media.

"You have to be careful using [McCain's approach] as a model for others," says Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling and Research in Washington. "It's hard to package and market and sell" to future campaigns.

The openness and camaraderie on his bus rides have already become part of the lore of Campaign 2000. On one leg that took the candidate through New Hampshire, a local cable-access crew hitched a ride on McCain's bus.

When asked to call a crew member's girlfriend to say "hi," the Arizona senator quickly obliged and queried her about her choice of love interests, to the delight of onlookers.

That sort of around-the-kitchen-table informality with reporters, and his willingness to answer virtually all questions, is credited with earning him respect from the media. The reporting in turn contributed to McCain's image as a straight-talking candidate unafraid to speak his mind without handlers to process and spin his message.

But that respect also translated, critics say, into a free ride on a number of issues. They include McCain's racial disparagement of the North Vietnamese, and his obfuscation on when and what he knew about phone calls made on his behalf during the Michigan primary that hinted that Gov. George W. Bush was anti-Catholic.

The early success of his openness might have also falsely emboldened him, some suggest, to attack conservative elements within the Christian Coalition in the run-up to South Carolina's primary. "The attack against Pat Robertson and the other [conservative religious leaders] might have been an outgrowth of that," says Mr. Coker.

McCain is not the first candidate to rise from relative obscurity in a presidential nomination race in part because of the way he handled the media. In the run-up to the 1976 election, the little-known governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, also opened up to reporters.

"One night during the New Hampshire primaries a reporter called Jody Powell's hotel room at 10 o'clock at night," recalls longtime NBC correspondent John Palmer. "Someone picks up the phone and says, 'He's not here but this is Jimmy Carter, can I take a message for him?' "

While not every future candidate may drive a version of the "Straight Talk Express," McCain's openness may already be changing the way some candidates interact with the media. Vice President Al Gore has been granting longer, more frequent on-the-record sessions on plane trips.

"It just stands to reason that if you make the reporter's job a little easier, it will generally work to the candidate's benefit," says Mr. Palmer.

But not everyone is adept at dealing with the Fourth Estate. "I would imagine if anyone else attempts this long-shot strategy, you'll to be confident that if you jump in the water you can swim," says Emmett Buell, a political scientist at Dennison University in Granville, Ohio.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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