Elections take a back seat to war

W By Howard Kurtz

where’s the drama?

Why, with both houses of Congress up for grabs, has the election seemingly been relegated to back-burner status?

Is this campaign a bust – and are the media partially to blame?

In years past, journalists have sounded a drumbeat about pressing issues – say, health care or budget deficits – and virtually demanded that candidates respond. In recent weeks, however, the loudest sounds have been the war drums over Iraq, the confrontation with North Korea and wall-to-wall coverage of the Washington sniper.

Toss in the fact that midterm elections are a messy conglomeration of 569 House and Senate contests and you have a play with no clear plot line. A major issue in Oklahoma is whether to ban cockfighting, while Arizonans are arguing over polygamy.

At five recent events in Missouri’s Senate race, says CNN political correspondent Candy Crowley, she bumped into a single journalist at two of them.

“It feels pretty lonely,” Crowley says. “Do I feel like the tree in the forest that falls and no one hears? Sometimes. Viewers are interested in the war in Iraq and the war in Montgomery County (Md.) and that’s where a lot of resources are going.”

Ron Brownstein – who declared in his Los Angeles Times column that most campaigns are “operating at two speeds: vicious and vacuous” – faults the press.

“We really haven’t been as aggressive covering this campaign as we should be,” says Brownstein. “Very few papers have explained what’s really behind this semantic argument about whether the Republican plan is privatization, or challenged the Democratic candidates on the incoherence of their position.

“Reporters are often intimidated from interjecting themselves into a debate in a truth-squadding way. Both sides are getting away with murder because they’re not being called on it.”

That may be because the election, two weeks from Tuesday, is only the third- or fourth-biggest story on the media radar screen.

Fox News correspondent Carl Cameron says he stayed in Washington until last week “because the campaign seemed trivial compared to the issues of war and peace and homeland security and snipers. … It was horribly frustrating. It compelled us to work the phones and watch advertisements FedExed to us and read the local press on the Internet. It is not the same as being out with people.”

Dick Polman, a political reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, has been traveling less and recently covered a medical marijuana initiative in Nevada, which he found more interesting than some of the races.

“When I think I’m going to write about politics, the likely war is so big in the forefront that you end up focusing on that,” Polman says. What’s more, “the Democrats don’t have anything particularly forceful to say on the war because they’re afraid, and on the economy they’re afraid to take on Bush’s tax cut.”

An election without a clear theme, it seems, is not exactly scintillating copy.

“The national press has been gripped by the Iraq story, more so than the American people,” says Roger Simon, political reporter for U.S. News & World Report. “I don’t sense that this has become a nationalized election about war and peace, the economy or who controls the House and Senate. I’m not sure it’s our job to impose some sort of national agenda.”

With the economic downturn, 45 states are facing deficits, but the press – with its usual fixation on polls and attack ads – has largely failed to force candidates to talk about specific spending cuts or tax increases. In New York, where Gov. George Pataki is cruising to re-election, The New York Times recently editorialized that “the candidates for high office in New York seem to be living in some kind of dream world, as if 9/11 and the stock market collapse had never occurred.”

Nor has the White House press corps had much luck in prodding President Bush to talk about most subjects other than terrorism and Iraq – a focus that analysts say helps the Republicans by keeping the media spotlight off domestic issues.

Yet another element in this colorless election is a shortage of exciting personalities. In California, a majority of those surveyed want someone other than Gov. Gray Davis or Bill Simon Jr. to run the state. In Minnesota, three candidates for governor aren’t generating a fraction of the excitement that surrounded Jesse Ventura. The most compelling stories have involved candidates bailing out early – New Jersey’s Robert Torricelli (beset with ethics problems) and Montana’s Mike Taylor (complaining about a Democratic ad showing him as a 1980s hairdresser).

While such newspapers as the New York Times and Washington Post still carry numerous campaign pieces, most of them have been shoved inside the paper. During October, aside from the Torricelli flameout, the Times has run seven front-page stories on the elections, the Post five.

Most candidates are so consumed by advertising, fundraising and debates, says Crowley, that there is “little retail campaigning” for the cameras to cover. In the North Carolina Senate race, Elizabeth Dole and Erskine Bowles taped a debate at an undisclosed time and location, excluding both the public and the press.

All of which has left political reporters searching for electoral meaning.

“It’s very nebulous,” says Polman. “It’s like trying to put your finger in the sand on a windy beach.”

condoleezza Rice knows how to fight more than one kind of war.

In the CNN trenches on Sunday, the national security adviser found herself under hostile rhetorical fire from Harry Belafonte. Last week, the singer, invoking the civil rights movement, had likened Secretary of State Colin Powell to a house slave and, on “Larry King Live,” had slammed Rice as well for not speaking out against the administration’s approach to Iraq.

“Just evoking the person’s gender, because Condoleezza Rice is a woman, and her color, because she’s black, does not justify abdication of moral responsibility,” Belafonte declared.

When “Late Edition” host Wolf Blitzer played a clip from Belafonte on Sunday, Rice seemed to take the high road, saying the entertainer is welcome to join a national debate. Then she said quietly but firmly: “I don’t need Harry Belafonte to tell me what it means to be black.”

One sentence was all it took.

not long ago, the White House received what appeared to be a rather bare-bones pool report from the press corps.

“Time Marine One pulled up at Andrews: 08:47

“Wheels up for Air Force One: 08:57

“Number of engines on Air Force One: 4

“Time aloft: 1:16 . . .

“Having your pool report distributed to the White House staff and 1,000 strangers: priceless.”

It was a phony report filed by Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank, one of a handful of scribes protesting a system in which their backstage reports are distributed by the White House – which occasionally objects to the content – to nearly 1,000 folks, about half of whom aren’t journalists.

The real report – this one circulated without White House help – had such lines as “Ari, Karl and Joe, identified by a wag in the pool as Larry, Curly and Moe, emerged from Marine One . . . “

“In other countries, when the government controls the distribution and content of news, we call it censorship,” Milbank says. “Here in America, we call it a pool report.” He says the dispatches are even reaching Republican lobbyists.

But Bob Deans, of Cox Newspapers, head of the White House Correspondents Association, says such protests “are sending us down a very potentially divisive road. There are a couple of people – and it is just a couple – who are frustrated with the current situation.”