- The Washington Times - Monday, January 26, 2004

New Hampshire will be the center of the universe for a few more moments — at least until the primaries close this evening and the fuss over “undecideds” in Dixville Notch has waned.

Besides, South Carolina looms on the immediate horizon.

Such is the fickle nature of primary coverage, which is driven by opinion polls, shrill moments with candidates, interviews with quirky locals, pundit speculation and excruciating details of the campaign trail.

Details don’t guarantee substance, though.

“If the media spent half the time discussing Howard Dean’s scream and tried fleshing out actual political differences between the candidates, maybe we’d get somewhere,” said Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs yesterday.

“But they insist on covering the states like a sporting contest with surges, tactics and mind games” he said.

Mr. Felling also faulted news organizations that obsess over the past, relying solely on “the strategies and trends of four years ago to explain things, instead of tossing out an army of reporters and digging into the real story.”

Political analysts continue to debate the importance of the Iowa and News Hampshire primaries and whether they reflect the nation’s political mood. But the two states hold an extra cachet for journalists, some say.

“For the press, there’s a kind of romance in the process. … It’s a throwback to an earlier stage of democracy,” Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker told the Los Angeles Times yesterday.

Throwback or not, broadcasters have got primary coverage down to a science, with Iowa and New Hampshire getting vigorous star treatment to maintain public interest.

Borrowing from the dramatic days of the Iraq war, MSNBC has taken to calling its primary correspondents “campaign embeds.”

C-SPAN promises its viewers a chance to “watch democracy at work,” broadcasting live from the aforementioned Dixville Notch — the hamlet where the very first ballot is cast in the New Hampshire primary.

CNN has ramped up its showbiz quotient as well. While last week’s Iowa coverage featured an edgy, live “Caucus Cam,” CNN will showcase a re-creation of its vintage 1992 “War Room” set for tonight’s coverage, with correspondents reporting from a set painstakingly assembled in an old textile mill in Manchester.

CNN anchors have been broadcasting live from Concord and Manchester since Thursday, uprooting news shows such as “Inside Politics” and “The Capital Gang” for snow duty. Larry King will host back-to-back live specials tonight at 9 p.m. and again at midnight.

CBS, ABC and NBC will offer hourly updates or special reports “as warranted” throughout this evening as results arrive.

New Hampshire itself might be a little weary, though.

“Do not think of New England as one amorphous demographic bloc,” cautioned Manchester Union-Leader columnist John Clayton yesterday.

They are “Maine-iacs,” Mr. Clayton wrote. “Vermonsters. No offense, Gov. Dean.”

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