ST. LOUIS — As the lights dimmed and Sen. John Kerry and President George W. Bush wound their way out of the Washington University debate hall Friday night, a political three-ring circus was escalating in the gymnasium down the hall.
Hyper-caffeinated journalists from around the world who were starving for action after being cloistered in the gymnasium during the entire debate swarmed around mobile placards bearing the names of Madeleine Albright, Karl Rove, Sen. Hillary Clinton and other political figures.
Cameras rolled and journalists scribbled into their notepads as White House communications director Dan Bartlett praised Bush’s performance while 20 feet away, Kerry aide Joe Lockhart gave his interpretation: “Kerry definitely built on his momentum.”
Such is the nature of the frenzied debate phenomenon called “spin alley.” With the debate over, anxious partisans scramble to put their candidate’s performance in a flattering perspective. So they fly in their party’s bigwigs to make journalists go gaga, and, they hope, get complimentary quotes in the news.
The scuttle of spin alley was only an intensified version of the spin going on during the debate.
Members of the media watched Bush and Kerry on television from the gymnasium/filing center adjacent to the room where the debate was taking place. As the candidates sparred over the issues in that room, their supporters on the other side of the wall deluged news reporters with a torrent of partisan fliers.
After the release of U.S. job-growth data for September, Bush supporters swept through the gymnasium with bulletins showing the economy in a positive light. But an hour later, Kerry supporters responded by distributing paper-sunglasses with red lenses and a handout saying Bush’s view on the economy comes through “rose-colored glasses.”
A half-hour into the spin, many sign holders and their signs’ namesakes stood alone on the sidelines chatting. Former U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan, who was once Missouri’s first lady, was among them.
Asked for a Missourian’s perspective on Kerry’s debate performance, she gave this angle: “I got to know him when I was in the Senate. He has a Lincoln-esque quality in his persona and the way he carries himself.”
But the competition for news space was only half the hullabaloo. Skillful Bush and Kerry poster holders aggressively jockeyed for position in front of news cameras, hoping to flood television shots with their signs.
As an NBC News correspondent reported from the floor, two 30-something women, one holding a Kerry poster and the other holding a poster for Bush, exchanged hostile words as they tried to block out each other’s sign.
“Get your sign out of my face!” one woman spat under her breath.
“Maybe you should get your sign out of my face!” the other woman shot back.
When the NBC bit was over, the two scrambled one-on-one across the converted basketball court to the next-nearest bright camera lights.