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Clinton Campaign Battles By Phone Call

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) has a reputation for secrecy and discipline, but her campaign's interaction with the media is increasingly defined by a series of sprawling, freewheeling conference calls during which reporters, bloggers and once even an aide to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) get to ask communications director Howard Wolfson just about anything for an hour a day.

The near-daily conference calls are forums for the Clinton campaign to deliver a message to a captive audience, and for reporters to try to drag them off that message. They're increasingly posted to websites, including Politico, offering outsiders a glimpse at the daily interactions of the campaigns and the media.

The Clinton calls — longer and looser than the Obama campaign's version — are also a campaign subculture of their own, a disembodied "Cheers," where everybody knows your voice, if not your face, and a space with its own rituals and its own set of regulars.

There's your barkeep, the even-tempered if hard-edged Wolfson. There's the voice of collegial authority in Fox News' Major Garrett. There's BusinessWeek's combative David Kiley, who regularly gets in early with a lengthy challenge to some campaign argument he sees as "sideways." There's Slate's subtly challenging John Dickerson. There's even a running gag: those wacky Canadians, who, whatever the news of the day, always want to talk about NAFTA.

Most regular of all, there's NBC's Andrea Mitchell, who speaks in the warm tones of private conversation, and who is always first.

"I think the other reporters would love to know your secrets for pushing the correct buttons," Wolfson told Mitchell after she hit the *1 keys fast enough to, once again, ask the first question on one recent call.

"Quick fingers," she replied.

The calls are Wolfson's baby, and he makes no secret of enjoying them. The veteran of Clinton's 2000 Senate campaign stays on long after other Clinton aides have delivered their talking points and returned to their day jobs. The record-setting Feb. 29 call ran more than 74 minutes, and ended with Wolfson observing that "we have exhausted the supply of questions."

The calls are strikingly democratic, and not always so collegial. On any given day, Wolfson is as likely to get a lecture on his alleged mendacity by a little-known correspondent as he is to banter with a media superstar.

"I'm always tickled by the 'independent blogger' or TruthOut folks getting on with Andrea Mitchell and other bigwigs," said Time's Ana Marie Cox, referring to Scott Galindez, the Washington bureau chief for the liberal website, who has attacked the Clinton campaign's honesty at length on the calls.

The culture of campaign conference calls began in 2007 with former Sen. John Edwards' presidential campaign, where top aides Joe Trippi and Jonathan Prince used them to make the candidate's attacks and his messages — often in danger of being drowned out by his superstar rivals — easily accessible to the scattered pack of national political reporters.

"It clearly gives a campaign the ability at the drop of a hat to drive a message across the press corps," Prince said. "We called them the Joe and Jonathan Show."

The Wolfson symposia began after Clinton came reeling out of her Iowa defeat with a new message: She, unlike Obama, would be willing to take hard questions and hold regular news conferences. Her aides amplified that demonstration of transparency with the increasingly frequent, and increasingly lengthy, conference calls.

The calls are freewheeling, and news pops unpredictably. They've also been, for the past month, the chief vehicle for getting inside the media's head. Instead of having to address one reporter at a time, Wolfson can efficiently — and regularly — berate a virtual classroom of 200.

"Every time the Obama campaign in this campaign has ttacked Sen. Clinton in the worst kind of personal ways, attacked her veracity, attacked her credibility, said that she would say or do anything to get elected, the press has largely applauded him," he complained on Feb. 8, priming the media for the backlash that ensued weeks later when Obama had to fend off questions about NAFTA, Samantha Power and "Saturday Night Live." "When we have attempted to make contrasts with Sen. Obama, we have been criticized for it."

At the end of February, Politico's Ken Vogel asked a question about Obama's indicted supporter, Tony Rezko. Wolfson responded heatedly with a long list of questions about Obama's relationship with Rezko, and a challenge to reporters on the call to answer them.

Wolfson said Friday that that particular riff had been planned in advance.

The calls have also been the locus of some of the best theater of the campaigns.

On March 4, the night of the consequential Ohio and Texas primaries, Obama's combative counsel Bob Bauer — also, incidentally, a Wolfson friend — unexpectedly hijacked a call arranged to complain about alleged irregularities in Texas.

"I'm curious to know how is this any different than the series of complaints you've registered against every caucus that you lose?"

Wolfson took it in stride. "I would imagine you would welcome this opportunity to join with us," he said. Later, a confused reporter asked who the earlier caller had been.

"That was Bob Bauer, B-A-U-E-R," Wolfson said, "someone that we know very well, attempting a vigorous defense of the indefensible."

Wolfson has been the dominant personality on the calls and, on occasion, his response has been personal.

"I am the father of a 3-year-old girl who has begun following the campaign in the way a 3-year-old does, and I'm proud that I'm able to tell her that I work for Sen. Clinton," he told reporters March 13, while answering a question about race.

The calls offer some tactical benefits to the campaigns.

"The conference calls were in some ways better than a plane or briefing room," Prince said. "You guys can all follow up individually, instead of everyone coming to the same opinion because of the cross-pollination across the room."

(Another benefit: If the Clinton campaign held televised briefings, Wolfson reflected, "I'd have to wear a suit instead of a sweatshirt.")

But the calls also carry real peril for the campaign. The message has shifted noticeably as Clinton's position has improved and worsened, with delegates mattering, or not, and with the relative importance of momentum changing dramatically.

Top Clinton advisers like Mark Penn have strayed from the campaign's message at times, with Penn scorching the earth a little this week to state that Obama will not be able to win Pennsylvania in a general election.

At other points, the simmering hostility inside the campaign has spilled over into the conference call.

"I'm not going to make any predictions. I'll leave that up to Mark," Penn's longtime internal antagonist, Harold Ickes, said during a March 5 call, jabbing Penn's false confidence that Clinton would win Iowa.

Slate's Dickerson produced another uncomfortable moment. "What foreign policy moment would you point to in Hillary's career where she's been tested by crisis?" he said.

He was met by six extremely long seconds of silence.

But the calls have succeeded in another way: They've dispelled the notion that Clinton's campaign is a secretive fortress, and indeed made it more accessible than Obama's, which has yet to match the Clinton calls. Though Obama's campaign holds regular conference calls with reporters, they're shorter, feature fewer questions and are far more focused on the campaign's message of the day.

"The Clinton conference calls are sort of extraordinary; for a campaign that took a lot of hits for beng standoffish and not giving the press access, they go on until people have almost run out of questions," Slate's Dickerson said. "The Obama conference calls tend to be shorter, less exhaustive and therefore less informative than the Clinton ones."

Obama's aides also exert more technical control over the calls, blocking follow-up questions by muting reporters' lines.

"Do not put the mute on, in case I have a follow-up — whoever is the moderator," Chicago Sun-Times columnist Lynn Sweet demanded during Thursday's call.

The moderator promptly muted her line.

"We don't view these conference calls as a form of entertainment — they're our opportunity to talk directly with the reporters who are covering us most closely," said Obama spokesman Bill Burton.

He said the muting allows reporters to "get a maximum amount of information out of the calls, as opposed to petty arguments that any individual may want to engage in," an apparent reference to the Obama camp's sometimes contentious relationship with Sweet.

The dueling calls also consume large blocks of time — it's not unusual for reporters to spend two hours of a workday on campaign conference calls — sometimes limiting their ability to do much else.

Friday was a rare conference-call-free exception. "You have time to write about conference calls today, because there are no conference calls," Sweet told Politico.