A calliope tootled for one Republican presidential candidate. A country band thrummed noisily for another. Banners for Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) jousted with placards for Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.). A conga line for Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) snaked around a cluster of fans chanting for conservative candidate Patrick J. Buchanan. And a protester wearing “fat cat” ears and handing out mock $500 bills introduced himself to the press as “Mr. Bill Fold.”
“Where am I?” laughed Gloria Borger of U.S. News & World Report as she elbowed her way through the crowd. “At a convention?”
No, not a convention exactly, nor even a micro-convention. Wednesday night’s Republican “candidates forum” was a media event, not created by a campaign or a candidate, but generated by a member of the media.
The political extravaganza that drew 10 Republicans running for President, hundreds of their supporters, dozens of political aides and about 200 national reporters was put on courtesy of Manchester’s ABC-TV affiliate, WMUR. And after it was all over, some wondered whether the station was creating news or whether it was generating its own advertising. The answer to both questions was an easy “yes.”
WMUR’s prominent role in staging the “debate,” supplying the moderator and setting the format, underscored two realities of politics in the 1990s. One is the greatly increased role of local television stations, which once were content to leave national politics to the networks. The other is the odd relationship television often has with political candidates-- each using the other for self-promotion.
Virtually every news show on television and most major newspapers on Thursday carried some mention of the event, in which each of the 10 GOP hopefuls delivered two brief speeches and answered a short series of questions from moderator Carl Cameron--WMUR’s chief political reporter. The day-after stories generally noted that the event marked the first time front-runner Dole had been on the platform with his nine opponents. And each time a television station ran a snippet or a newspaper ran the group picture, WMUR’s logo came with it.
As the 90-minute show ended, candidates and their aides surged around Cameron. “Terrific event,” a political operative told the reporter as they shook hands vigorously. “It went well,” Cameron chuckled, accepting accolades as New Hampshire’s 34-year-old political guru.
The WMUR label did not, however, survive completely unscathed from the hoopla over the event. Cameron, praised by some for his interest and enthusiasm about politics at all levels, also became a target of the national media. One profile portrayed him as egocentric and arrogant, attributes that some suggested may bruise his pride but would not hurt him terribly in the television industry.
Likewise, the station’s technical abilities came in for some raucous criticism when the lights went out in the first four minutes of the program. Reporters corralled in a warehouse-like press room guffawed as WMUR tried to recoup the blackout that obliterated most of New Hampshire Gov. Steve Merrill’s welcoming remarks. One WMUR official, watching in the half-dark as a team of engineers scrambled to rewire the studio, said he felt like it was a local TV station’s version of Apollo 13.
Referring to the two rows of candidates sitting in the dark, NBC-TV commentator Tim Russert said the presidential hopefuls suddenly looked like “10 guys in the witness protection program.”
Similarly, some journalists declared the forum dull, although few actually said it directly. The Boston Globe, for example, called the debate “muted.” Others preferred the word “non-confrontational.”
Conservative commentator Irving Kristol was less gentle. Noting that he “dutifully tried to watch” all 10 candidates, Kristol said that he was left at the end with one overriding question: “Is this all there is?” And NBC-TV’s Gwen Ifill decreed that the event was simply “deadly dull . . . dry as toast.”
Even so, for most of those in the press and the community of political professionals, enjoying the autumn leaves and the face of New Hampshire without the snow and angry protesters that will arrive closer to the nation’s first primary in February, the WMUR campaign event was like the first day of a long school term, when everything seems exciting even if the real drama is a few months away.
And for WMUR, having the candidates, the campaigns and the media camped out on its front door meant that the station, once labeled the Brat Pack by ABC-TV’s Peter Jennings, has now graduated. WMUR reporters have matured into the kind of down-home media stars who are serious about pursuing the news at the same time as they energetically promote their station as the political center in New Hampshire.
“I don’t know if there’s a station in the country that covers as much political stuff as we do,” said news director Jack Heath. “We even cover it in the off-season.”
Or as Cameron put it: “Our primary never stops.”