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Politics in primary red carpet

February 07, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

The Vanity Fair Oscar party was canceled, Britney's life remains in disarray and the writers strike may be nearing an end, but all anyone can talk about is the presidential election. What gives?

With a breathlessness usually reserved for red carpets and sporting events, the hundreds of pundits, anchors and analysts involved in the television coverage of the Super Tuesday primaries took American politics to giddy new computer-enhanced, professionally scored heights. The networks pulled out all the stops in an attempt to go head to head with CNN and MSNBC, creating a hypnotic evening of viewing that was exhilarating, confidence-restoring and, at times, downright wacky.

Electronic flags shimmered behind anchor desks, forests of laptops kept pundits up to the minute, and phrases such as "hold on to your seats" were thrown about with abandon. NBC had bar graphs by the thousands, CBS borrowed the stately brass section once reserved for "Masterpiece Theatre" and ABC announced, in sonorous tones most recently heard in "Lord of the Rings," that "tonight, across the nation, the people speak."

Presidential politics has become the new "Phantom of the Opera," the latest best picture nominee, the next "Dancing With the Stars," and no one wants to be seen as behind the curve.

Which isn't to say it wasn't a serious night, fueled by a race between the most surprising and diversely appealing group of candidates in recent memory. For the first time ever there is a good chance that a woman or a black man could be president, while over on the Republican side a hot-headed maverick is taking on the Christian conservatives. In a country exhausted by war, gas prices, housing bubbles and the fear of a new depression, "change" has become the mantra, with Democratic candidate Barack Obama leading the charge to rouse voters from their much vaunted apathy. Sinclair Lewis could not have conjured a better setup.

And Tuesday night played out just as big. What was conceived as a primary blitz to create an instant front-runner resulted in just the opposite -- by evening's end, Democratic candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Obama were within spitting distance of each other delegate-wise, while Republican candidate Mike Huckabee made a surprising show, giving competitor John McCain a run for his money and pretty much pushing Mitt Romney if not out of the picture, then to the bitter edge.

Still, this is America, and in America we tend to overdo things, especially when the networks are involved. So all the political A-listers, from Carl Bernstein to Karl Rove, were present and accounted for (including the indefatigable Mark Shields, God bless him, who I believe was the first to observe that young Mr. Lincoln was experiencing a surge). So we were treated to more tea-leaf reading and explanations of super delegates than perhaps we were prepared for on a Tuesday night.

But more important, what was up with Katie Couric and her touch-pad map? I know everyone wants to appeal to younger viewers, but the "Sesame Street" crowd usually has an 8 p.m. bedtime. One which Couric apparently shares, since she was the lone anchor who seemed strangely less than fascinated by the history unrolling before her, at times almost sleepily groping for questions to ask her esteemed colleagues.

By contrast, over at ABC, Diane Sawyer was earnestly interviewing the folks from Facebook. Why aren't the young people voting more, Sawyer demanded of the comely young Internet guru? To this the blogosphere offered no answer, and so that icon of American television was reduced to anchor-as-actuary, chewing through demographic breakdowns like some cranked-up squirrel.

In fact, everyone went a little crazy with the breakdowns. In his Tuesday night speech, Sen. Obama spoke of a future when "we don't need to be divided by race and age and gender," but that dream was clearly not shared by the good folks at the exit polls. Voters in 22 states were sliced, diced and labeled by everything but their DNA. (And still everyone seemed strangely shocked that many white men voted for Obama. Even though he is a man.)

All in all, my favorite moment had to be when MSNBC called for viewers to text in "the match they would most like to see" as if the general election should be decided by "American Idol" fans. Now that would probably solve the young-voter problem -- text balloting.

NBC, it must be noted, refused to follow their sister networks in their all-primary-all-the-time coverage, switching over to "The Biggest Loser." NBC anchor Brian Williams solemnly promised to interrupt the reality show with any breaking news, but the message was clear: as important as the presidential primaries may be, they still don't trump weight loss.

My fellow Americans, we may stand united on the brink of great change, but we haven't completely lost our heads.

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mary.mcnamara @latimes.com

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