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Clinton Schedule Is A Campaign Mystery

After a rally in Philadelphia Tuesday night, the traveling reporters covering Hillary Rodham Clinton tried in vain to get an answer to what seemed like a simple request: What was the candidate’s schedule for the next day?

Only one evening event was on the books. But word had trickled through the press corps that she might also speak at a breakfast meeting of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Or might not. Or, again, might.

It wasn’t until shortly before midnight when official confirmation finally arrived via e-mail to the traveling press that she would speak at the breakfast.

It was just another day on the Clinton campaign, where lockstep messaging and a near-obsessive chokehold on scheduling details rule. Barack Obama does slightly better, sometimes releasing his traveling schedule three or four days in advance, with the cities noted even if specific event details remain TBA — to be announced. But Clinton rarely, if ever, confirms plans earlier than a day or two ahead. 

The practice sometimes catches campaign field staffers off guard and, political analysts say, risks alienating the very reporters who tell the story of the campaign. But as a strategic tactic in a fast-moving national campaign, they note, it makes good sense.

“The reason the campaigns are not putting [schedules] out anymore until the last possible minute? It’s because they don’t want their opponents to take advantage of the information,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a veteran campaign advance man who worked on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and in his White House in 1993.

“The less heads-up the opponent gets, the less time they have to prepare for how to message against it,” he said. “If you can save it until the last possible minute, you can make it harder for your opponents to spin and message against you.”

Still, whether it reflects deliberate strategy or mere disorganization, longtime Clinton observers say the practice is completely in keeping with the tightly centralized approach that has characterized Clinton’s presidential and Senate campaigns. Her 2006 Senate campaign was known for sending out e-mail notices at midnight announcing 7 a.m. appearances the following morning.

“I do think that the Clinton campaign has been very top down, and the word 'control freaks' is not entirely inappropriate,” said F. Christopher Arterton, dean of the Graduate School of Political Management at The George Washington University.

“It may be that when you’re dealing with people lower down in the organization, they can’t make a decision, they don’t want to get in trouble with the higher-ups,” Arterton continued, explaining how traveling press aides often don't have authorization to release scheduling information. “Everything has to go through campaign central.”

Clinton aides say that by holding off on the release of scheduling details, the campaign can respond more adroitly to changing dynamics of the race — a polite way of saying they might, on short notice, stiff one event for another if it suits their strategic purposes.

That was especially important before Super Tuesday, aides said, when more than 20 states were in contention.

“I don’t want to get too deep here into the strategy behind scheduling,” said campaign spokesman Mo Elleithee. “But really for us, the particular question about when we make scheduling decisions…is trying to find a balance between having enough time to make things happen, but maintaining a certain amount of flexibility so we can make changes or adjustments.”

The situation might loosen up during the five-plus weeks leading up to Pennsylvania’s April 22 primary, Elleithee added, if only because there’s less geographic territory to cover and a broader time frame in which to operate.

So far, though, it hasn’t orked that way.

This past week, Clinton spent two days off the road in Washington meeting with staff and fundraisers on Wednesday, and conducting Senate business on Thursday. As reporters were packing up after a Q&A with black newspaper publishers Wednesday night, several asked a top traveling press aide if Clinton still had no public events beyond Senate business on Thursday.

Not that she knew of. “But I’ll e-mail if something comes up,” she said, apparently only half-kidding.

Until 8:30 p.m. Wednesday night, there had been only hints of Clinton’s traveling plans for the weekend, even though the candidate herself blurted out during a Monday campaign rally in Scranton that she would attend the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade this Saturday — a fact the local press immediately reported.

Yet when a reporter asked a state campaign operative at a Philadelphia rally whether Clinton would appear in weekend parades, he just shrugged. “First I’ve heard about it,” he said.

Security concerns account in part for the belated release of the schedule, political analysts say, especially when the events are open rallies or parades. But Obama has announced his rallies days in advance, and his public appearances constitute no less — and possibly more — of a security risk than hers.

Elleithee acknowledges that the last-minute announcements can be tough on reporters. “We try to give people as much notice as we can, but anyone who’s ever covered a presidential campaign before understands that this is in part the nature of the beast, and part of what it means to be part of the traveling press corps,” he said.

Still, Arterton warns that while the ambiguity surrounding scheduling may not hurt immediately, it can damage a campaign — and a candidate — in the long run.

“One thing you might know, is that there’s an informal ‘Boys on the Bus’ rule, that [author] Timothy Crouse, way back in 1972, articulated,” said Arterton, referring to the groundbreaking book about the presidential campaign trail. “It was that the way in which the campaign handles the press becomes a measure that the press uses for how organized and efficient the campaign is.”

Rabinowitz, too, raised the “Boys on the Bus” example, but he came down on the other side.

“If it’s a delicate balance between telegraphing to the other side where you’re going to be and what you’re going to be talking about — so [your opponent] can counter-schedule and counter-message — and pissing off the reporters on the bus? I’d try to have it both ways,” he said.

“If I had to choose? I’m sorry for the bus.”