Bob Schieffer on landing the Romney interview

Mitt Romney and his SuperPAC flooded the Florida airwaves with nearly $16 million worth of negative ads against Newt Gingrich. Scott Pelley speaks with CBS News chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer on the ads helped propel Romney to victory in the Florida primary.
(CBS News) On Sunday, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney will appear on CBS' "Face the Nation." The interview marks something of a milestone: The first time this campaign cycle that Romney will appear on a Sunday talk show that does not air on Fox News.

The interview, which will be taped Saturday on Romney's campaign bus, has been a long time coming: "Face the Nation" has been trying to land Romney for nearly two years. The show's producers and its anchor, CBS News Chief Washington Correspondent Bob Schieffer, have pressed the Romney campaign to make the candidate available on a weekly basis throughout that time, and Schieffer has also made his case on the air.

"You know, we've been trying for a long time to get Mitt Romney to come sit down at this table," Schieffer told New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on February 26. "Now you're obviously a friend and an advisor. You make a good case for him. But I'd like to hear him make the case. Would you put in a word for us and say, you know, they'd love to see you over there at Face The Nation, if you'd accept their invitation?"

Christie said he would do so - "When I talk to him next time I'll tell him it's a good friendly place to come to answer questions of people across the country wanting your answer," he told Schieffer - but nothing came of it.

On the April 22 show, Schieffer asked Romney campaign senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom if and when Romney would appear. "We're in constant discussions with your staff, and I'm sure that we'll find an opportunity in the near future to bring him on the show," Fehrnstrom replied.

The near future came and went, and Romney still had yet to appear. Which leads us to this exchange on May 27 between Schieffer and Romney campaign senior adviser Ed Gillespie:

BOB SCHIEFFER: Do you think, we ever going to see him on one of these Sunday morning interview shows? I know he does Fox, but we would love to have him sometime.

ED GILLESPIE: Well, I'm sure he would.

BOB SCHIEFFER: As with Meet the Press and with the ABC full cast.

ED GILLESPIE: You know, Bob, the fact is that we're going to take our message to the American people, you see him-- you saw him, you know, talking to schoolchildren last week, given a speech on education reform and had great respect for the shows, I'm proud to be with you today and-- but the fact is how we get our message to the American people and convey that to the voters, you know, we will have to consider a number of options in that regard and I'm sure the Sunday shows are one of them.

BOB SCHIEFFER: Well I know that the schoolchildren were always happy to see him, but I want to make sure he knows we would be happy to see him, too.

ED GILLESPIE: Make sure, I'll -- I'll carry that back to Boston.

Schieffer was not the only Sunday show host pressuring Romney to appear; on February 26, NBC's David Gregory made a point of saying this after an interview with Rick Santorum: "We have had a longstanding invitation to have Mitt Romney on the program, and up until now he has declined. We certainly hope he will change his mind and come on for an interview in the course of the primary process."

In an interview Thursday, Schieffer said that when he pressed the campaign for the interview - both in front of the camera and behind it - he made sure to be polite.

"I always try to be very careful to do that in a polite way, with kind of a wink - 'how about giving him a holler?,'" he said. "We just do everything we can and try to play fair." As for landing the interview, Schieffer said, "it's just staying with it, staying in contact, which is about half of what journalism is all about. Just showing up every day."

Romney's decision to avoid the non-Fox News Sunday shows during the primary process was to some extent a practical one. Romney was far better funded than his rivals in the primary, and thus had less need for the free airtime that accepting the invitation would get him. And his campaign knew well that while a good performance on television can boost a candidate's prospects (see Kennedy, John F.) a bad one can have significant negative ramifications (see Kennedy, Edward). Romney's team apparently calculated that while it made sense to go on Fox News - with its direct line to a largely conservative audience - there was insufficient upside to make appearing on a network Sunday show worthwhile.

"Any time you get into a presidential campaign and the stakes are so high, all candidates - they want to be in complete control whenever they can," said Schieffer. "And you can't blame them for that. And it's our job to convince them that they might come off looking well if they answer questions, which I think they do if they answer well, and I think it adds to their credibility."

While some candidates view going on a Sunday show as "sort of like going to the dentist," Schieffer said, they need to recognize the potential rewards as well as the risk.

"If you get asked a really tough question and you give a really good answer, you come off looking really good," he said.

When Schieffer came to Washington in 1969, most members of Congress did not have press secretaries. Now many have media coaches and consultants who help them game out the questions they might be asked on a show like "Face the Nation." They also come prepared with canned responses for questions they aren't prepared to answer.

Schieffer says there is no substitute for actually knowing what you're talking about.

"People are not stupid, especially the people who watch these Sunday shows," he says. "They're very sophisticated. If you don't answer the questions, they know it. They think less of you for it. You come off as evasive."

"If you're not prepared to do it, I think you're better off not doing it," he added.

Schieffer's favorite guest in two decades of hosting "Face the Nation"? Former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga. That's because Nunn would turn down invitations to appear on the show if he felt he didn't have anything substantial to say. When he did accept an invitation, he often ended up making news.

"I knew when he came on," Schieffer said, "he was going to tell us something to advance the story."