"From the Road" to the Curb: Pulling Over and Looking Back at Campaign '08

By CBS News' Director of Political Coverage Steve Chaggaris:

(WASHINGTON) – When former Gov. Tom Vilsack, D-Iowa, became the first candidate to announce - two years ago - a 2008 presidential run, no one could have envisioned the ups-and-downs, the surprises and the history that would be made over the course of Campaign '08. Here at CBS News, we chose eight talented producers in the summer of 2007 and sent them on the campaign trail to witness those twists-and-turns first-hand – to be our eyes and ears on the presidential campaigns.

Over the course of those 14 months, the off-air reporters, as we called them, watched that history unfold right in front of them: from Barack Obama's victory in January's Iowa caucuses and Hillary Clinton's insurmountable setback on Super Tuesday - which set the stage for Obama's eventual nomination - to the battle of Republican heavyweights that resulted in the inevitable-to-improbable nomination of John McCain.

"It seems more like 14 years ago than 14 months," said Scott Conroy, who was our producer covering Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin.

"I've learned and experienced more in the past year than I thought possible, and I feel incredibly lucky to have gotten the chance to be a witness to history."

Producer John Bentley, who covered McCain in the general election and Fred Thompson during the primaries, said, "The historic nature of the campaign, the enormous level of interest, and the hard-fought political battle made it an amazing experience and a great story to report on."

During the course of the campaign, the CBS News off-air reporters chased the likes of Palin and Joe Biden, saw the overhyping and eventual failures of Romney, Rudy Giuliani, and Fred Thompson, and witnessed the humor and unconventional campaign of Mike Huckabee and a pre-scandal John Edwards, who, when ribbed by CBS News correspondent Chip Reid last December for not giving the press enough negative material to run with, Edwards responded, "just wait, you just wait!" How prescient.

And, in addition to all the work that was required of them as CBS News producers - shooting video, taking detailed notes at each event, assisting with our correspondents and filing for radio – they were responsible for the "From the Road" blog.

Bentley, Conroy, Ryan Corsaro, Maria Gavrilovic, Dante Higgins, Aaron Lewis, Joy Lin and Fernando Suarez – the eight CBS News off-air campaign reporters – were the heart and soul of this blog. It was they who stayed up late many nights, jumped on-and-off planes and vans and buses multiple times daily, and lived physically – and sometimes mentally – unhealthy lives over the past 14 months. And it was they who brought you, our dear readers, their reporting and insights "From the Road" on this blog for the past year.

"I'm now dealing with a post-election hangover," said Gavrilovic, who covered Obama since September 2007. "My body aches, I'm nauseous, exhausted, confused. I woke up this morning in a panic that I missed a call time. I get to decide when I need to wake up?! Then there's the food. I now have the luxury of picking what I want to eat?"

A Lot of Food
And food was a recurring theme on the trail. Whether it was Romney removing the skin from his KFC chicken pieces, Huckabee mocking Romney for his eating method, Huckabee showing his expertise about BBQ or McCain making his own BBQ, the off-airs had it covered.

It wasn't just food. Wine, beer and whiskey were all consumed publicly by Hillary Clinton. There were also sports: baseball, basketball, bowling.

Behind the Scenes
The off-airs also took you behind the scenes, creatively illustrating what it's like to cover presidential campaigns. In December 2007, Scott Conroy described the Romney plane as being like a mullet haircut: "Romney was all business in the front, where he consulted with staff members for the majority of the two-hour flight, but he let loose a bit when he paid a visit to the back of the 50-seat plane to chat with members of the media."

Fernando Suarez, who covered Clinton, used his video skills to show you a glimpse of her campaign pre-Iowa caucuses.

Joy Lin, who covered the Huckabee campaign, described the lack of glamour covering a non-frontrunner.

While any reporter will talk about the amazing experience it is covering presidential campaigns, it's not always fun and games as one Associated Press reporter learned and CBS' Conroy wrote about. And Corsaro witnessed a campaign vs. reporter flap on the road with Giuliani.

Celebrities
Then there were the celebrities: Oprah, Magic Johnson, Chuck Norris, Jon Voight, Tim Robbins and Bruce Springsteen, to name a few.

Listening Closely
And it wasn't just the superficial; the off-airs had sharp senses and when something didn't sound right, they weren't afraid to call it out. Conroy asked Romney whether his father, George Romney, really marched with Martin Luther King, Jr.

Later this year, Conroy, while covering Palin, asked about a comment she made to Katie Couric, "'Gotcha Journalism' Or A Double Standard?"

At one Clinton event, Suarez couldn't help wondering what her campaign staff was thinking when they included a song in the program with the lyric, "She will mess up your life."

What They Saw
Finally, there were priceless moments that the off-airs recorded. Gavrilovic wrapped up Obama's summer world tour, revealing what he learned on his trip.

Bentley had so riled up Thompson – after Bentley suggested the former candidate was overstating the case when he described Palin as the "most remarkable success story in the history of American politics" – that Thompson e-mailed Bentley and made an audio recording of the text of the e-mail.

In September, as Palin was dominating the headlines, Corsaro pointed out that while there was a full complement of reporters following Biden, very few media outlets were actually running Biden-related stories.

And now it's over.

Barack Obama is the president-elect and the off-airs all return to their pre-campaign lives.

Corsaro, for one, is relieved the end is here.

"I'm glad it's over because I'm done with writing about promises, vows, and goals," said Corsaro, who covered both Giuliani's presidential run and Biden as Obama's running mate.

"Now it's time to write about decisions and accomplishments. That'll be a real change."
  • Steve Chaggaris

    Steve Chaggaris is CBSNews.com's Executive Editor, Washington.

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