ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Even before debating vice-presidential nominees Al Gore and Jack Kemp had finished here the other night, a host of high-profile Democratic and Republican politicians and political operatives surged into the huge anteroom where a small army of reporters sat watching the end of the debate on television monitors.
Those who were writing against deadline stayed at their computers, keeping one eye on the television screens as they pounded away at their keyboards. Others, however, scrambled to the front of the room for "the spin" -- the partisan wisdom being imparted to anyone who would listen about who "won" the debate and who "lost," and why.
What was going on was a long-practiced exercise in unabashed propagandizing by the "spinners" -- cabinet members, governors, senators, pollsters, media consultants and other varieties of political hucksters putting the debate in the best light for their favored candidate and casting doubts on the performance of the opponent.
There was a time in presidential debates when reporters were somewhat insulated from this onslaught. They might seek out a politician for an opinion or to clarify a point. Campaign strategists soon recognized an opportunity to try to affect the stories being written.
Now "spin" -- not only self-serving, but usually carefully programmed in advance -- has become integral to campaign debates. Reporters may ignore the "spin," but many, particularly younger reporters or those from local or smaller newspapers and television stations, seem unable or unwilling to pass up the chance to interview a cabinet secretary, governor or senator.
At the first 1996 presidential debate in Hartford, organizers of the event put a "Spin Alley" sign on the wall of the press area where the assigned persuaders would toil. The Democrats added a new wrinkle to make it easy for reporters who didn't know one spinner from the next. They had flunkies follow the spinners with signs on poles held over each spinner, such as "Sen. Chris Dodd, Democratic National Chairman," or "Secretary Donna Shalala."
Alone in 'Spin Alley'
This new technique worked famously, drawing many more reporters to Democratic spinners, while their Republican counterparts often wandered aimlessly and undisturbed about "Spin Alley." Charles Black, a prominent, veteran Republican operative advising Bob Dole, stood for minutes on end without anybody to spin. An eager young journalist eventually approached, solicited a spin and then turned to another reporter and inquired: "Who was that?"
By the time the vice-presidential debate here rolled around four days later, the Republicans had their own identifying signs for star spinners, and their own sign-toting flunkies. Their share of spinnees shot upward.
The campaign strategists, not content with deploying their trained seals after the debates, have also taken to doing "pre-debate spin." The seals come in early to tell anyone who will listen how their candidate will best his inept opponent. Or, if they want to lower expectations, they're ready to say how their candidate is really in over his head.
The campaigns are now also given to handing out printed "prebuttals" that answer anticipated arguments of the opposing candidate. During the debate they distribute instant rebuttals to points the foe has just made.
What new wrinkle do the master spinners have up their sleeves for Wednesday night's second and final debate between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole in San Diego? How about some pre-spin spin on the outcome? That way we won't have to wait until the debate begins to write about it.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 10/14/96