ST. PAUL, Minn. — Alaska delegates to the Republican National Convention got a strong message this week from Republican officials as the media swarm kept bugging them about Gov. Sarah Palin: "STAY POSITIVE when talking with reporters."
The one-page "Republican National Convention Talking Points" sheet provided to them added: "No one is better suited to deal with the largest issue on voters minds: Energy." If reporters asked about indicted Sen. Ted Stevens, it advised the delegates: "As long as he does not receive jail time, he is legally capable of serving."
Politicians and political parties have long tried to shape how they appear through the media's lens, to draw attention to their issues and to divert attention from possible trouble spots. The job is harder in the age of 24-hour news, Internet bloggers and partisan radio and cable talk shows than it was when Franklin D. Roosevelt could avoid having his picture taken in his wheelchair, John F. Kennedy's good looks helped him "win" a televised debate against Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan was able to use his amiable image to cushion some tough economic and foreign policies.
During the second Bush administration, however, the Republican Party has raised "message discipline" to a high art, issuing daily "talking points" and cutting the legs out from under any official — even Army generals — who got "off message."
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Despite the fact that the Republicans met in Minnesota to nominate John McCain for president, there was more discipline than straight talk at their convention. Day after day, it was hard to find anyone who wasn't offering the same lines, and as delegates and officials headed home Friday, they were confident that they could answer any question about Palin or anything else quickly and cogently.
The message effort proceeded on several fronts. Party officials participated in daily conference calls with top Republicans and discussed the "line of the day," usually how to discuss energy, McCain's record, the economy or national security. Surrogates then talked to the news media and delegate meetings.
On the convention floor, the national party on Monday gave all delegates blue pocket cards listing party principles, with quick responses to constituent and media questions.
For instance, should anyone ask about the economy or terrorism, they could repeat lines such as: "We support our heroes and their mission to create an enduring peace, based on freedom and the will to defend it."
The card advised adding, "The Democratic party platform calls for higher taxes on American families and small businesses while ignoring the threats against the United States and its allies."
(Democratic nominee Barack Obama would increase taxes on most people who earn more than $250,000 and cut taxes for most others.)
Democrats mounted an equally sophisticated operation at their Denver convention. Officials conducted five phone calls each day with surrogates, at 4:30, 7:30 and 10 a.m. — in time for the morning TV talk shows — and again at 5 and 9:30 p.m. local time.
Talking points were e-mailed throughout the day, and delegates could call a special hot line to hear more about those points.
Unlike the Republicans, however, the Democrats didn't universally parrot their talking points. Roughly half the delegates in Denver had been pledged to New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, and it was easy to find some who were concerned about Obama's appeal.
By the end, though, the Democratic convention was unified, and the Democrats were pleased with their operation. "We feel our message operation was extremely disciplined," Democratic convention spokeswoman Natalie Wyeth said.
While most Republican delegates in St. Paul said they didn't need talking points, they were thankful for the aid.
"Some delegates here have never talked to the media," said Alaska state Rep. Bob Lynn of South Anchorage. "It can be scary when you stick a camera in someone's face."
"It helps my memory," said Chad Jackson, a Tennessee delegate.
"When I go home, if I want to write a letter to the editor, it does help," added Jared Maynard, a Michigan delegate.
After the news Monday that Palin's unwed 17-year-old daughter was pregnant, the surrogates got the party message from e-mails and phone calls and mobilized quickly.
On radio row — a lineup of talk show hosts just outside the Xcel Energy Center doors — Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said, "This is a sensitive family matter." On the convention floor, Michigan delegate Bill Beddoes had heard that kind of talk all day and agreed, telling the media, "She's a real person with a real family."
The surrogates were given another message: Blame the media and deflect attention from the controversy.
In a conference call Wednesday with reporters, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said the media had gone too far with Palin.
He called coverage of her daughter "salacious" and "inappropriate," and added, "Unless the media is prepared to offer Democrats the same level of scrutiny, they ought to start looking at the balance of their coverage." Later in the day, McCain senior adviser Steven Schmidt weighed in, complaining about reporters' questions about how well _or whether — McCain had screened Palin before he chose her.
"This nonsense is over," Schmidt said, in what appeared to be an effort to fuse the issue of reporting on Palin's children, which many journalists consider out of bounds, and the issue of whether the 72-year-old McCain's selection of a running mate was painstaking or impulsive, which few journalists consider nonsense.
A lot of Republicans took their cue from Davis and Schmidt that night, the evening Palin spoke, derisively chanting "New York Times, CBS" during one convention session.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee inadvertently may have explained the Republican media-bashing strategy. He got huge cheers that evening when he told the convention, "I'd like to thank the elite media for doing something that, quite frankly, I wasn't sure could be done, and that's unifying the Republican Party and all Americans in support of Senator McCain and Governor Palin."
(McClatchy convention interns Lindsey Lanzendorfer, Shawn Boonstra and Natasha Ludwig contributed.)
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