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They’re only too happy to give you their take

Times Staff Writer

Imagine a school of ravenous guppies swimming around looking for food. Suddenly, someone tosses a handful of crumbs into the water. The guppies go crazy! They flit here, they flit there, they swirl around in chaotic guppy mobs, inhaling each crumb before moving on to the next.

That’s what it feels like in the spin room after a major political debate. And that’s how it was Thursday night after the hotly anticipated vice presidential matchup between Sen. Joe Biden and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin here at Washington University.

Schools of reporter guppies chased around political operatives and surrogates. Some of them, to be honest, were like crumbs. There was, for instance, a guy named Frank Donatelli, a Republican National Committee official, who attracted a crowd of three. That included the campaign volunteer who was holding a tall sign identifying him. (Just about everyone gets a sign. The McCain-Palin people held big square posters aloft; the Obama-Biden people held tall skinny ones.)

If Donatelli was a crumb, former New York mayor and onetime McCain rival Rudolph W. Giuliani was more like a whole loaf of bread. The crowd around him was about eight deep, and if you hadn’t leaped toward him when he walked into the room, fahgeddaboutit -- you were not going to get close enough to get a quote. When he moved, the pack moved.

In one corner, Barack Obama’s campaign manager, David Axelrod, was mobbed the moment he walked through the door. In his calm, measured voice, Axelrod patiently explained that Biden had won the debate on substance but that he never thought Palin would be anything other than a formidable debating foe.

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“I don’t think anyone would have been reassured by her answer on nuclear proliferation,” Axelrod said. “She said it would be the be-all and end-all for people. I think we all agree on that, but what are you gonna do about it?”

Next to him, Obama campaign strategist David Plouffe was reminding people that he has always believed Palin to be a good debater, but “there was no ‘there’ there.”

Under the Lindsey Graham sign, the South Carolina senator was explaining that he was pretty sure Palin “misspoke” in her answer about bankruptcy judges rewriting mortgages.

“So what do you say to people who think Sarah Palin is just not smart enough to be president?” asked a reporter, thrusting his tape recorder at Graham. The senator did not flinch. “She’s not only smart, she’s got guts,” he replied, gazing over the heads of the reporters pressed around him.

McCain’s campaign manager, Steve Schmidt, bald and very pink, stared straight at the cameras in front of him. “How has the debate changed the race?” asked a reporter. With no detectable sarcasm, Schmidt replied, “The debate ended five minutes ago. It’s tough to know how it has changed the race.”

He did, however, manage to remind the swarming reporters that John McCain “is in a position to win this race” and that “Barack Obama’s economic strategy will devastate the economy.”

Meanwhile, John Oliver, the fake reporter from “The Daily Show,” was circulating with his crew. Across the room, Washington University freshman and Encino native Jennifer Goldberger had spotted him and was on the phone with a friend, a huge fan of the English comedian.

“Keep your phone on,” she said, “I am gonna have John Oliver call you. He’s really busy right now, but don’t turn your phone off!”

Oliver was, at that moment, a few yards away. He plopped down in front of a dark TV monitor (the debate had been over for nearly an hour) and began screaming at it while his cameraman rolled.

“Why aren’t you gaffing?” he yelled. “No gaffes? This is boring!”

An actual reporter typing away on deadline looked up in irritation.

“Would you mind doing that somewhere else?” the reporter asked.

“This will only take two seconds,” said Oliver, who shouted some more about the lack of gaffes before disappearing back into the guppy sea.

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robin.abcarian@latimes.com


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