(NASHVILLE, TENN.) - After most of the previous 12 months covering Barack Obama's campaign for the presidency, it was interesting, instructive and, well, relaxing to follow John McCain for the last few days. The differences between the two are striking.
Obama is the big time orator, McCain is the guy who struggles with a teleprompter or even note cards strategically placed nearby. Obama's crowds are larger, more enthusiastic. McCain's events are smaller, but to my eye, better choreographed. And now with the addition of Sarah Palin to some of his events, McCain can boast of crowds that match Obama's in energy.
There is an urgency to the McCain campaign now that I don't think was there before. Due to the fact that he is running second, no doubt, but it may also be because McCain has a finishing kick. Whatever the case, he is sharper on the stump than he was before. (Though I would suspect a candidate running behind would want to schedule two or three appearances per day, instead of the one McCain usually does.)
It is true that McCain enjoys taking questions from the audience in town hall-style settings. That doesn't mean he is the master of that kind of forum, it just means he's good at it. He likes to converse with voters. Obama does it well too, but seldom achieves that intangible bond with the people that all politicians crave -- or fake.
Behind the scenes, where the public is not allowed, there are other differences.
Obama's campaign schedule is fuller, more hectic and seemingly improvisational. The Obama aides who deal with the national reporters on the campaign plane are often overwhelmed, overworked and un-informed about where, when, why or how the candidate is moving about. Baggage calls are preposterously early with the explanation that it's all for security reasons.
If so, I would love to have someone from Obama's campaign explain why the entire press corps, the Secret Service, and the local police idled for two hours in a Miami hotel parking lot recently because there was nothing to do and nowhere to go. It was not an isolated case.
The national headquarters in Chicago airily dismisses complaints from journalists wondering why a schedule cannot be printed up or at least e-mailed in time to make coverage plans. Nor is there much sympathy for those of us who report for a newscast that airs in the early evening hours. Our shows place a premium on live reporting from the scene of campaign events. But this campaign can often be found in the air and flying around at the time the "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric" is broadcast. I suspect there is a feeling within the Obama campaign that the broadcast networks are less influential in the age of the internet and thus needn't be accomodated as in the days of yore. Even if it's true, they are only hurting themselves by dissing audiences that run in the tens of millions every night.
The McCain folks are more helpful and generally friendly. The schedules are printed on actual books you can hold in your hand, read, and then plan accordingly. The press aides are more knowledgeable and useful to us in the news media. The events are designed with a better eye, and for the simple needs of the press corps. When he is available, John McCain is friendly and loquacious. Obama holds news conferences, but seldom banters with the reporters who've been following him for thousands of miles around the country. Go figure.
The McCain campaign plane is better than Obama's, which is cramped, uncomfortable and smells terrible most of the time. Somehow the McCain folks manage to keep their charter clean, even where the press is seated.
The other day in Albuquerque, N.M., the reporters were given almost no time to file their reports after McCain spoke. It was an important, aggressive speech, lambasting Obama's past associations. When we asked for more time to write up his remarks and prepare our reports, the campaign readily agreed to it. They understood.
Similar requests are often denied or ignored by the Obama campaign aides, apparently terrified that the candidate may have to wait 20 minutes to allow reporters to chronicle what he's just said. It's made all the more maddening when we are rushed to our buses only to sit and wait for 30 minutes or more because nobody seems to know when Obama is actually on the move.
Maybe none of this means much. Maybe a front-running campaign like Obama's that is focused solely on victory doesn't have the time to do the mundane things like print up schedules or attend to the needs of reporters.
But in politics, everything that goes around comes around.