In Presidential Race, A Focus On Sideshows

Geraldine Ferraro John Hagee Samantha Power James Carville.
This story was written by political reporter Brian Montopoli.

Welcome to the season of the political sideshow.

Over the past month, questions about substantive policy differences, the latest primary contest, or even the presidential candidates themselves have somewhat faded from view. In their place, news consumers have been offered a consistent stream of stories about the controversial statements of the candidates' high-profile supporters.

They include surrogates like Samantha Power, who stepped down from the campaign of Barack Obama after calling Hillary Clinton a "monster." Geraldine Ferraro, who caused a firestorm by saying, "if Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position." And talk show host Bill Cunningham, who stressed Obama's middle name, Hussein, at a John McCain campaign rally.

There were the religious figures: Obama pastor Jeremiah Wright, whose controversial comments, among them "God damn America," sparked a firestorm. Louis Farrakhan, who has called Jews "bagel-eating vermin," and whose endorsement of Obama led the Illinois Senator to "reject and denounce" his comments. McCain backer John Hagee, whose controversial comments on Catholicism McCain later distanced himself from. And McCain "spiritual guide" Rod Parsley, who has agitated against Islam and called it a "false religion."

And there were this week's headline-grabbers: Clinton backer James Carville, who characterized Bill Richardson as "Judas" for backing Obama. Obama senior adviser Gordon Fischer, who invoked "Monica's blue dress" in a blog post. And Obama advisor Merrill A. McPeak, whose linking of comments by former President Bill Clinton and McCarthyism prompted an outraged fundraising appeal from the Clinton campaign.

There can be legitimate value in these types of stories - a surrogate's statements can potentially offer a window into a candidate's own thinking. And the Wright controversy, which initially appeared likely to play out as did the Power and Ferraro stories, ultimately prompted Obama's much-discussed address on race.

But critics have begun to question the degree to which the campaigns - and the press corps - have made such statements central to the campaign narrative.

"It's part of the curse of the long campaign," said Thomas Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "It speaks to the degree to which the really important things can fall by the wayside."

Patterson says that reporters, who feel they have already covered the substantive differences between the candidates, seize on controversial comments by supporters for a fresh angle.

"They're not totally distractions - some of them are worth covering," he said. "Have at it on [Samatha] Power. Let's have an argument here about calling someone a monster. The problem is when issues like this become the story - the lens through which you look at the campaign."

Michael Feldman, a Democratic strategist and former Al Gore advisor, argues that the "political industrial complex" that has grown up around the campaign needs to be fed, even during slow news periods. And stories about gaffe-prone supporters can do the trick - which is why the campaigns push such stories in their near-daily conference calls and memos to reporters.

"You have a gap, a rather lengthy gap, in between major contests, but this infrastructure has been developed and needs to be fed," said Feldman. "It needs to still operate, there's a never-ending search for material, and campaigns have adjusted to fill the void."

Indeed, political reporters once had a seemingly limitless number of possible angles - a large number of intriguing candidates, an unprecedented extended primary season, an historic Democratic slate that prompted questions about Americans' relationship with race and gender. Then John McCain secured the Republican nomination, the primary season slowed down, and issues that reporters were once eager to explore seemed, to them at least, increasingly stale.

It's not unlike "the two weeks between the end of the playoffs and the Super Bowl," according to Democratic strategist Chris Lehane - a time when reporters have to keep cranking out stories even though they don't feel they have much to write about. Campaigns see such periods as opportunities to exert greater influence over coverage than they once could.

But this constant pressing for advantage - the near-constant outrage over what one supporter or another had to say - can hurt campaigns, Patterson argues, because it keeps negative stories about the candidates in the headlines.

"At the moment, it's these surrogates that are driving a lot of this coverage, and I think to the detriment of the Democratic candidates, and likely to hurt the Democrats' prospects in the fall," he said.

In the end, Feldman argues, the campaigns are simply trying to manage a "virtually unmanageable process."

"Is this stuff a distraction? Sometimes," he said. "Is it news we can use? Sometimes. All of it taken together can help people make up their minds. But if what you're asking is, 'is all of it in proportion?' No. It's not. But that's the very nature of a modern presidential campaign."