Pushing boundaries of fatigue on the trail

Times Staff Writers

The days stretch 15, 18, 20 hours and the stops blur in a whirl of doughnuts and hotel ballrooms: California at 6 a.m., New Mexico at noon, wheels down in Boise, Idaho, at midnight.

Listening to -- or giving -- the same stump speech five times a day. Making the same small talk with voters. Scratchy hotel sheets. Scratchier voices. The cold that passes from candidate to staff to reporters and back again. The presidential campaign trail has a culture and a grueling rhythm all its own.

"I like to tell people it's like 'Groundhog Day,' " said Ann Romney, wife of Republican candidate Mitt Romney, referring to the 1993 film in which Bill Murray finds himself living the same day again and again. "Every day you want Groundhog Day to be over."

The compressed primary season -- and especially these frantic days leading up to Super Tuesday -- has magnified all that is exhausting and exhilarating about the trail. In their scramble for votes and money, the candidates must will themselves beyond fatigue, hunger, boredom, frustration.

They choose this life, of course. So do their aides. And (most of) the reporters who cover them.

But even veterans of the trail have been blindsided by the intensity of this season; with no candidate able to secure either party's nomination in early voting, it's gone on and on, a marathon paced at an all-out sprint.

"This is my third presidential campaign and I have never seen one that even approaches this level of intensity," said Jay Carson, 30, a press aide to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y).

Carson marks progress by the trail of possessions he has left behind in hotel rooms -- mostly clothes, forgotten in the rush to keep moving.

"I know there's a suit hanging in Concord, N.H.," Carson said. "I'm positive there's a sweater at the Embassy Suites in Des Moines." His favorite shirt, he believes, is in Las Vegas.

Brooke Buchanan, national press secretary for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), tells her own wry tale of the all-consuming trail. In December, Buchanan's landlord called her mother with an urgent query. Buchanan, 27, hadn't been to her apartment for months. The landlord's question: "Is she still alive?"

The trail will do that to you. Swept along in the flashbulb-lit bubble of a campaign, you lose touch with the outside world. You go where the candidate goes, sleep where the candidate sleeps. You eat what's put before you. Way too often, it's pizza.

"I've put on 35 pounds in the past year, and I wasn't slim to begin with," said Philip Elliott, 26, an Associated Press reporter who spent 12 months trailing candidates throughout New Hampshire.

Somehow, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has dropped pounds from his already-thin frame during his quest for the presidency. He says he's the reverse of a stress eater -- a stress starver.

For just about everyone else, the trail means fat and flab. Or hallucinations about fat and flab: When former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.) -- who tries to stick to a strict diet -- was touring a factory in Iowa early on, he told one startled worker that a flat metal disc looked like a giant pizza. Then he advised a manager that the machinery could also be used to grill ribeye steaks.

Huckabee likes to keep the mood loose on the campaign trail.

But even he looked taken aback when wife Janet tried to stir up the crowd at a Cuban cafe in Miami last week with a bit of impromptu hip-hop:

"Who let the Huck out?" she chanted. "Huck, Huck!"

Perhaps she got the idea from Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who greeted a cheering crowd at a Martin Luther King Day parade in Florida with: "Who let the dogs out? Who? Who?"

Such loopy attempts at humor seem to come more often these days, as the fatigue and tension mount.

One of Romney's sons, Josh, nearly took out the press corps when he attempted to surf down the aisle of the campaign's charter jet as it was taking off at the end of a five-city marathon through Florida last week. (He was using one of his dad's campaign signs as a surfboard.)

Romney himself made his way to the back of the plane on that same flight to announce -- chipper as ever -- that the itinerary was being extended. "We've added a couple more cities!" he told the sagging journalists. As it turned out, he was kidding. They arrived, as planned, at a St. Petersburg hotel a little after 9 p.m. -- just 15 sweaty hours after Romney started the day with a sunrise news conference at a West Palm Beach gas station.

Though the long days spark a fair share of grumbling, life on the trail creates a sense of rumpled camaraderie -- between candidate and reporter, veteran strategists and junior staffers, even Democrat and Republican.

"It's like a very strange sorority-fraternity you're involved in," Ann Romney said. "When I see Michelle Obama, when I see Elizabeth Edwards, we give each other hugs, and that look. We know what it means."

Reporters covering McCain in New Hampshire got to know his favorite aphorisms so well that they made up a bingo game, vying to be the first to hear him repeat odd turns of phrase, such as: "You can call it a banana."

On former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's bus, news crews serenaded the Republican candidate's press aide, Maria Comella, with "Happy Birthday to You" when she turned 28.

Elliott, the AP reporter, spent Christmas Eve eating Chinese food with Romney's staff. Christmas Day found him at the movies with aides to former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.). "It becomes your whole life when you sign on," Elliott said. "That's the worst part. And the best part."

Fernando Suarez, a CBS producer, has been embedded with the Clinton campaign for months. He must keep the cameras rolling at all times, in case the candidate takes a swipe at a rival or chokes back a few tears -- or trips and falls off a stage. "You get into a fog and start to lose your concentration a bit," he said.

Then he thinks about that old cliche -- how he has a front-row seat for history in the making -- and it's worthwhile again. "There are times when you take one step back and say, 'This is an amazing experience,' " Suarez said.

Clutching a big cup of tea -- she drinks a lot of that these days -- Clinton said she drew energy from the crowds. When that fails, she relies on willpower. "You just make up your mind, you're going to get out there and you're going to do the best you can," she said. After all, as often as she has given her stump speech, it's new to each crowd. "You have to give them your best effort," Clinton said, "so they feel like they have been part of the process."

With voters going to the polls Tuesday in 24 states, no campaign -- or reporter -- can let up for the next few days. But McCain's wife, Cindy, is not shy about declaring that she is giving herself a day off Wednesday. She misses daughter Bridget, 16. She misses their dogs. Home-cooked food. And exercise.

"The morning of the 6th," Cindy McCain said, "I'm going hiking."

Unless she's not.

Republican voters in Kansas, Louisiana and Washington go to the polls Saturday.






Times staff writers Michael Finnegan, Maria La Ganga, Louise Roug and Stephanie Simon contributed to this report.

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