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Media Add Their Lines to Script

Press: Unexpected events capture the attention of horde that spent time trying to knock the GOP off-message.


PHILADELPHIA — Republicans had put months of effort into making sure that the crowning of Texas Gov. George Bush here on Thursday would get saturation press coverage. But Vice President Al Gore, vacationing at the beach, still got himself a headline.

The leaking of Gore's vice presidential short list underscores what the media hordes gathered for the Republican National Convention had already learned. By painstakingly draining the convention itself of news, Republican leaders magnified the media's interest in unexpected developments such as the hospitalization of former President Ford and the public spat between President Clinton and former President Bush.

Swarming over four aircraft-hangar-sized tents and a vast trailer park outside the convention hall, the press this week has illustrated that no matter how scripted the made-for-TV event might be, there will always be news beyond the party's control.

Democrats learned that lesson the hard way in 1996, when the final day of Bill Clinton's second nomination was largely overshadowed by the erupting scandal over campaign advisor Dick Morris' dealings with a prostitute.

But Bush aides said Thursday there was plenty of spotlight left for the Texas governor.

"There's always going to be something else going on," said Bush media consultant Russell Schriefer. "The question is whether we've been effective in getting our message out, and I think the answer is yes."

Thursday's leak by Gore's campaign punctuated a week in which the GOP and the assembled press engaged in a daily tug of war, with reporters trying to extract even a bit of dissent between party conservatives and moderates while the party faithful struggled to march in lock-step.

"'I think everyone in this hall interviewed Jerry Falwell in the hope that he would get off-message," said John Walcott, news editor in Knight Ridder's Washington bureau. "What we found is that there are darn few people off-message."

Indeed, the media's hunger for a story--conflict, drama, anything--became a running joke early on, as when Bush strategist Karl Rove dropped a hint to Fox News Channel viewers Monday night to pay special attention to the song playing when Barbara Bush walked on stage.

"I think we have news here, folks, I think we have news," anchor Brit Hume chuckled. (The song was "Devil in a Blue Dress.")

But reporters started filling the void with stories that turned the focus away from GOP-produced imagery. Newspapers and cable channels carried stories about fund-raising events, congressmen angling for new committee posts and polls showing the disparity between the largely white delegates and the racially diverse lineup on the podium.

But the GOP was also dismayed to find relatively minor stories scoring big play. Dennis Miller's debut on "Monday Night Football," rather than Laura Bush's speech, received top billing in Tuesday's edition of USA Today. Daytime television coverage Tuesday was saturated with the clashes between Philadelphia police and protesters. The elder Bush's tiff with Clinton was being billed as a full-on family feud by Wednesday, when Bush appeared on "Good Morning America" and had to refuse several times to elaborate on his thoughts on the president. And journalists scrambled Thursday to catch up on Gore's short vice presidential list, thanks to a leaky campaign office.

Even some Republicans empathized with the media's demand.

"The media is looking for other things because it is boring what Americans are seeing," said Sen. Charles Hagel of Nebraska. "If you cut [the convention] in half and dealt with the issues of the day, Americans would start to . . . watch."

Hagel and Rep. Peter T. King of New York agreed that viewer interest would rise if there were contentious floor fights or last-minute suspense about the nominee, such as occurred in 1976, when Ronald Reagan came close to taking the nomination from Gerald R. Ford.

The problem, both said, is that the conventions are no longer designed to decide the nomination.

"The purpose of the convention . . . is image-making," King said. "It's to project a symbol of the Republican Party as being more inclusive."

But that strategy cuts two ways. On the one hand, convention planners succeeded in creating a softer image of conservative philosophy. On the other hand, the news fodder created did little to attract grazing media members.

"If we're running a non-news convention, we have to expect that the media is going to give attention to items that interrupt the convention. That's part of the game," said King.

Hagel, who had backed the insurgent campaign of Bush rival Sen. John McCain of Arizona, said the four-day duration of the convention--longer if you count the weekend political events that proceeded the official opening Monday--guaranteed glazed viewers.

"You can't sustain a convention that long, holding the news media focused or America focused on the image you're trying to convey," Hagel said. "The reality of that is it won't work. The reality is the news media will cover other news."

And viewers were apparently looking for other programming. As of Wednesday, the convention was on track to become the least-watched on record.

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