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Charging Down the Campaign Trail

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Austin, Texas -- The campaign trail is not good for everyone. Not good for those who enjoy life, for those who value good health, and for those who cherish their sanity. The campaign trail demands a special and strange breed. It demands those who can survive constant madness.


Every day on the brutal trail is either a golden opportunity that must be snatched or a fatal danger that must be dodged; each day is more important than yesterday; each day is crucial! Time is squeezed hard, space roars past, tomorrow is already yesterday. There is only one speed on this campaign trail -- faster!


Raw adrenaline shoots me out of bed. "Where am I?" I stutter. "Doesn't matter!" my voice snaps back. I punch the remote control and CNN engulfs me in the morning's political report. I slam the computer button and the screen hurls the latest election news. I gulp three cups of coffee and devour a slice of last night's pizza, while leaping into this month's clothes. I dart out the motel door and into my car zipping from Oklahoma to Texas, sprinting from an Obama campaign rally to a Clinton town hall meeting to a McCain press conference. Everywhere I'm leaping into the distorted minds of endless voters, jumping into a few sleazy afternoon bars, finally crash landing in yet another buggy bed. Just another day on the brutal campaign trail. It takes a seasoned political junkie to survive this campaign madness. To remain on your wobbly feet when roaring on the razor-sharp edge between sanity and insanity. The campaign trail is not for wimps. Your body takes a vicious beating. Your brain vibrates like jelly, as if someone is slugging your brain with a baseball bat. Your emotional stability is stomped. But there is worse. What the campaign addict calls the Great Snap! That's really ugly. Having been beaten and slugged and stomped by many vicious campaigns, I now recognize the signs of an impending mind snap. What signs? There is the mental disorientation, such as when a journalist keeps asking, "What is my work again?" There is the fleeting rationality, like when someone says, "John McCain is starting to make sense." There is the slurred speech, with "Texas" coming out as "infected." There is the stumbling walk that drops you to the pavement and reconfigures your face into uncooked ground beef. Trust me, I know all about this ugliness. And I know how to avoid the horrible mind snap. More on that later, now I'm off to the CNN debate. Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama will be tearing into each other. Bodies scanned and bags inspected by stern-faced security men, more than 400 journalists slowly file into the building, walking down a long hallway and split up into three assigned rooms. They are bare except for rows of wide-screen televisions in front of long plain tables. Just down the hall from the debate auditorium, but the journalists will not be permitted into the debate hall, instead watching the debate in the rooms on the wide-screens.


With most campaign journalists insisting the candidate debates are the crown events of our elections, of course the media circus goes completely nuts. Here at the University of Texas in Austin there are caravans of satellite trucks, an army of twitching-finger photographers, and legions of dazed scribbling journalists drooling for copy action. Fat cords snake across the ground and the floors, often tripping the dazed scribblers, microphone poles whip through the air gashing heads. More than one generation produces exciting fireworks. Outside on the heavily guarded perimeter, angry locals, unable to secure entrance tickets, jeer and even heave garbage at journalists. Americans are not always the best behaved people. But forget that. The air, then, is saturated with electricity and chaos and even blood, and of course garbage. It's truly exciting!


As for the journalists, whacked by the brutal campaign trail -- having been riding the devil for more than two months -- pumped to witness the candidates in vicious verbal combat, desperate to suck in the high voltage of the whole mad scene, they flock to these debates like crazed, starving sheep. All campaign journalists are addicted to these campaign debates, like drug addicts are to heroin. The debate has started on the widescreens. I can see at least a dozen images of the candidates on the stage, begin to speak. Addressing several thousand Texans in the auditorium and an estimated 13 million Americans watching on television, both Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama deliver profoundly bland introductions. I guess they don't want to overwhelm the audience. Three pre-selected journalists then start asking the first batch of questions.


With Hispanics making up a quarter of all registered Texas voters, with a huge surge of illegal Hispanics pouring into Texas -- the number of illegals in the U.S. has ballooned to more than 12 million -- it's not surprising that the first questions are about illegal immigration and constructing a security fence on the U.S.-Mexican border. Also not surprising, since the Texas primary election is barely over one week away, Obama and Clinton give answers that does not upset the large Texas Hispanic vote.

Both candidates support amnesty for the present illegal immigrants, and both are ambiguous on building a fence to stop future illegal immigrants. There's a question about the economy -- currently spinning quickly down the toilet -- and questions about this and that.

The journalists in the press rooms turn fidgety. Some are reading their Blackberries, others their computers, still others are chatting lightly. A large group of journalists, however, are typing furiously in their mad attempt to capture every word spoken by the candidates. "They're megaphones for the words of the rich and powerful," Carl an online writer sneers. Called "stenographer" journalists, they're not appreciated by the seasoned journalists. "Brainless, stupid recorders" a features writer described them. Meanwhile, most of the real journalists are beginning to doze off.

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Out in the hallway, hanging around the food and drink tables and unashamedly devouring tons of supplies, are about fifty photographers. When not compulsively clicking 500 times a minute, the "shooters" morph into a gloomy looking group. Most look like petty thieves. Most probably are.


Not all journalists believe the candidate debates are the epicenter of the campaign trail. And most of the American public agrees, dismissing them as empty verbal rituals, not genuine political debates. The complaints seem to revolve around the fact that knock out punches are never delivered, even political points are hardly ever won or lost. Americans like real fights, where someone gets stomped.


"These debates are a bunch of phony crap," says Carl who smells of cheap whiskey. I wonder how he snuck a bottle past security and into the press room. "I won't watch one of these charades even if it was in the bottom of my glass."


I return to the press room -- booing! The questions had turned politically personal. One was about Clinton's charge that Obama is a candidate of only words, while she is the candidate of real substance. Then a question that his words are not even his own, Clinton has accused Obama of plagiarism. That brought the press booing.


After 45 minutes there is a short break. "OK, we'll give them a half-time score," says an obese magazine editor wearing a rumbled suit and towering over a pencil-thin young woman sitting and typing frantically. "I think Obama is spending too much time in the huddle with himself," he says using the football analogy. She types. "He is starting with dilatory remarks, an old warrior's trick which gives him time to think of an answer. Clinton is sort of like Norte Dame, with all the tradition.
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It seems to me," he hesitates, throwing me a quick glance to ensure the eavesdropper is catching this, "it seems to me she is scoring most of the debate points."


The questions are now about the big issues: health care, national security, and Iraq. Although they are direct and precise, the answers come back stale, and remarkably similar. The candidates dodge anything dangerous and say everything safe. There are no slips because it's all expertly planned.


"They're shadow boxing," Carl slurs, spit flying past my head. "They know every move, so it doesn't matter. They know the other's fight plan."The questions grow weaker, not trivial, yet not strong enough to halt the downward slide in the press room. The candidates discuss government waste and the election process as if they are on automatic pilot. The photographers drift back into the room, bloated and tired looking. The scribblers turn drossier. Only the stenographers are alive.

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Stewart Nusbaumer is a journalist and writer. He is currently on the campaign trail writing a book on the "endless campaign." He has written for numerous print publications and online magazines.

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