Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Get ready for a round-the-clock Obamarama.

The media-savvy Democrat had ducked the 24/7 press coverage that other presidential candidates have endured for months, but no more. As of Saturday, every breath he takes, every move he makes will be scrutinized and recorded for posterity, often with a biting wit.

Now orbiting Sen. Barack Obama is the gaggle of reporters known as a “protective pool” - although newshounds who cover presidents have dubbed the duty “body watch.” While the debut Obama dispatch opened with the ominously boring words “no news, no color,” subsequent filings have included some color, such as “Michelle … looks slammin’ in a black cocktail dress with a severe slit down the back.”

“7:10 p.m. - Barack and Michelle Obama head to a downtown Italian restaurant called Spiaggia,” Amy Chozick of the Wall Street Journal wrote on Saturday. “The ‘Taste of Chicago‘ festival is going on, and traffic is a mess. Entire pool wonders why they chose a chic restaurant in downtown Chicago if they don’t want anyone to see them.”

Related stories: Obama defends his, McCain’s patriotism and Obama house parties tap ‘persuasion army’

It was Miss Chozick who deemed Mrs. Obama “slammin,’” just before she immortalized this observation: “Her hair was up.”

Small pools of reporters are often used in tight spaces that might be logistical nightmares to include the entire traveling press corps. The pool itself isn’t tiny, though: A typical grouping includes at least 10 reporters, TV news crew and photographers traveling wherever the candidate goes, day or night, weekend or workday.

The lone print reporter, often derisively called the “scribbler,” serves as the eyes and ears (and at a restaurant, the nose and maybe taste buds) for the bus-bound journalists, sending back a report with all the details big and small from the event.

The protective pool was established a few weeks after Mr. Obama ditched the press to have a private meeting with his former Democratic presidential rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, in the dead of night in Washington. Where was the press corps? On the candidate’s plane, bound for Chicago.

Furious reporters asked campaign aides at Washington Dulles International Airport why Mr. Obama was not on board, but aides hemmed and hawed and did not confirm the private meeting until after the plane touched down 700 miles away.

The New York Times’ Jeff Zeleny wrote the first pool dispatch on Saturday, telling colleagues that the pool gathered at the Capital Hilton at 6:50 a.m. and hooked up with the candidate at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, where he had spent the night.

“After holding outside for two hours, your pool drove to far Northwest Washington.”

Mr. Obama visited Walter Reed Army Medical Center, but no press was allowed in with him.

Miss Chozick picked up the trail, opening with nearly identical words: “No news. Lots of sitting around.”

The pool rode in his motorcade from Chicago Midway Airport to Mr. Obama’s home, then followed him to the gym, back to his house, to dinner with his wife and back to his house once more. All along the way, little snapshots of the candidate emerged.

“3:30 p.m. - Obama arrives at his Hyde Park home, a two-story red brick house on a tree-lined street with historic houses. His kids played in the sprinklers in the front yard. The candidate went inside to change clothes to go to the gym. The pool sat across the street and waited on a wall, later discovered to be covered in fire ants. There is a synagogue across the street from his house,” she wrote.

Mr. Obama worked out at a high-rise apartment called Regent Park, home of a friend, ducking in the back door “wearing black sweat pants, a gray tee-shirt and a black baseball cap.”

Back in his neighborhood awaiting his night out with his wife, Miss Chozick noted: “Plain-clothed Secret Service agents lingered all around the house very conspicuously pretending to be ‘regular’ people.” After a two-and-half-hour dinner at “Chicago’s only four-star Italian restaurant,” the pair slipped out the back door and went home.

The next day, Sunday, wasn’t much newsier. The Illinois senator got in a short workout, then got a haircut at the Hyde Park Hair Salon, where he’s been a customer for several years. Barber Ishmael Alamin, who was working at the shop, said Mr. Obama got “a regular clipper cut,” and offered this knowledgeable nugget: “He comes in every week or two. If I let him go too long, it gets kind of bushy.”

Staff writer Christina Bellantoni contributed to this article.

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