RICHMOND, Va. — As Thursday night's presidential debate ended, a new war of words fought in outer space began.
Even before the candidates had left the stage in Richmond, the high command of Democrat Bill Clinton's campaign got together on a conference call to get its story straight.
The debate ended the moment a woman in the audience asked President Bush how the recession had personally touched him, a key aide to Clinton asserted. Bush said he didn't understand the question, the aide noted.
Right, the group agreed. Lead with that.
It's a metaphor for the whole election, someone added.
Within minutes, Clinton campaign workers in Little Rock, Ark., had faxed back to Virginia the agreed-upon "debate talking points": " 'I'm not sure I get it,'--George Bush," it began.
Only part of what happened next is familiar.
The public knows about the campaign operatives who rushed into the press room at the debate site to spin such lines to reporters, who mostly greeted these so-called "spin doctors" with suspicion.
But what was almost invisible Thursday night--and what the Clinton campaign thinks may be far more valuable--was occurring out of sight, in a converted dance studio under the gaze of portraits of Fred Astair and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
There, Clinton aides had set up three makeshift television studios and four radio studios, connected to a satellite truck in the parking lot in Virginia, linked to a transmitter company in Washington and monitored by the campaign's satellite telecommunication department in Arkansas.
And over the next two hours, leading Democratic politicians conducted more than 100 interviews with TV and radio stations around the country, pressing the case that Bush doesn't "get it" not to reporters but directly to voters through local radio and TV newscasts.
On the other side, the Republicans were similiarly occupied--from the meeting to hammer out talking points to the string of interviews following the debate.
"We were booked for three hours straight," said Bush campaign deputy communications director Leslie Goodman.
This new political battleground reveals a major change in the nature of political persuasion this year. In an era when the national media have become more skeptical in their attitude toward the candidates, technology and the growing appetite of local news is allowing the presidential campaigns to simply bypass them.
"Hi, Paul, how are you," retired Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., the former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is telling anchorman Paul Braun of WBSG-TV in Jacksonville, Fla.
"I know you support Gov. Clinton, so you think he won, but why?" Braun asks.
"Adm. Crowe is getting feedback from two signals in his ear," Dave Anderson, a young Clinton aide with his blond hair spiked in a punk haircut, says into a phone line connected to one of the Democratic studios. "Clean the line."
Anderson is sitting in front of three televisions monitoring the broadcasts from the three makeshift studios. Each studio looks like an office or library, with a chair, a potted plant, a bookshelf. But in truth they are a TV illusion, not rooms at all, just spaces in the dance studio divided by heavy blue curtains.
In one, labeled "TV-2," Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware is talking to a Philadelphia newscaster. The Crowe interview is occurring in "TV-3."
Meanwhile, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York is in Albany, making himself available for satellite interviews. In Carthage, Tenn., Clinton's running mate, Al Gore, is standing by.
And back in Richmond, in a makeshift radio studio, former Michigan Gov. James J. Blanchard, former San Antonio Mayor Henry G. Cisneros, Arkansas Sen. David Pryor, Colorado Gov. Roy Romer and others will soon be making themselves available for a total of nearly 60 radio interviews aired by stations in several of the campaign's more competitive states.
The markets for both the TV and radio interviews are picked, by both parties, in places where the campaigns believe they need to shore up their base of support or move undecided voters.
As the interviews begin to filter out, the Democrats are right on script.
"Those questions the audience asked were very excellent questions, particularly the young lady who asked George Bush how the recession had affected him," Romer tells Jack Maher of KUSA-TV in Denver. "The President couldn't relate to that question."
"George Bush doesn't get it and Bill Clinton does get it," Democratic National Chairman Ronald H. Brown, who replaced Romer in TV-2, tells Norman Robinson of WDSV-TV in New Orleans. "Clinton understands the problem. And he's ready to lead."
"And George Bush said I don't get the question," Biden is telling Mark Howard of WPVI-TV in Philadelphia.
"That's the problem," Crowe is telling June Thompson of KTSP-TV in Phoenix from TV-3. "He doesn't get it."
"He doesn't get it," Clinton national campaign manager Mickey Kantor is telling Roland Smith of WWOR-TV in New York from TV-1. "And that's the problem."