DAVID SKOLNICK | Politics Hooking up with the Bush, Kerry campaigns



I find myself on the telephone a lot more than usual in recent weeks.
That's because the campaigns of President Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry hold numerous teleconferences to keep reporters abreast of what's going on and to feed us the party line. They are basically press conferences done on the telephone.
Previous presidential campaigns used teleconferences, but not to the level of this year. In a typical week, I'm in three to five teleconferences.
I, along with other journalists, get e-mails about a teleconference happening later in the day -- sometimes we get a whole day's notice -- who it's with, and how to get connected.
The conferences are held for just about anything, including visits by the candidates to Ohio, the release of new television commercials, or why the Buckeye State is so important in this year's election. During the Democratic convention, Republicans held numerous teleconferences with various elected officials from throughout the state.
Don't get me wrong, the teleconferences are very helpful. I'm able to speak to national campaign leaders and elected officials without going through the normal channels, which can often be taxing.
Sometimes the people being interviewed don't say anything newsworthy, but it doesn't hurt to listen and ask questions to get a better insight into the campaigns.
What I find particularly interesting is the different approaches the Bush and Kerry campaigns take.
Both campaigns send telephone numbers and pass codes about the upcoming conference. The Bush campaign gives out a 1-800 number and the pass codes are rather simple. It's usually "Bush-Cheney" or "Bush-Cheney Ohio."
The Kerry campaign typically uses a 1-888 number and the pass codes remind me of the secret numerical codes used by the military if they ever need to launch nuclear missiles. For example, the pass code for a Kerry teleconference last week was "9156559." It took me three tries before I successfully dialed into that teleconference.
After you dial in to a GOP teleconference, you're asked to give your name and media affiliation. You are then placed on hold while classical music is played. [I've been lobbying the operators for Neil Diamond, but to no avail so far.] An operator tells you the conference will begin shortly in a voice that sounds like a pilot talking to passengers on an airplane flight, and then the conference starts.
When you dial in to a Democratic teleconference, you're asked to give your name and media affiliation as well. But you're never put on hold. You're in the conference immediately. It's also how the people being interviewed get into the teleconference. This style has its positives and negatives.
On the plus side, you can chat with fellow reporters before the conference starts. I often talk to former Vindicator reporters to catch up on things.
Another positive is all the phone lines are open so once the opening statements are made, it becomes a free-for-all with the loudest reporters -- with me near the top of that list -- getting to ask questions and follow-up questions. On one call, I asked Kerry three questions in a row.
In comparison, the Republicans put reporters on mute, and make you dial 14# if you have a question. They take the questions in order of how fast reporters are with their dialing fingers. Also, after you ask a question, you usually get placed back on mute leaving you no chance for a follow-up or to get a clarification unless you want to dial 14# again.
The biggest negative with how Democrats handle their teleconferences is if someone comes in late, or leaves and returns, they have to state their name and media affiliation. When that happens, and it happens often, you hear something like, "Mark Niquette, Columbus Dispatch," in the middle of a question or answer, and it completely drowns out the person speaking on the teleconference. Also, that person usually gets flustered and loses his train of thought.
Reporters are starting to overdose on the teleconferences. Fewer and fewer questions are being asked.
The best, or worst, example is J. Kenneth Blackwell, Ohio's secretary of state. Blackwell gave an opening statement of less than a minute in support of Bush, and then it was time to ask questions. None was asked. A Bush campaign official kept asking if we had any questions, and to save face with Blackwell, he said there must be something wrong with the phone system. That was a good one.

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