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Reliable Sources

Coverage of Iowa Caucuses

Aired January 06, 2008 - 11:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice over): Iowa earthquake. Hillary Clinton's third place finish. Why did journalists tell us all year she was practically inevitable?

Mike Huckabee's upset victory. Why did the media treat him like an amusing sideshow act for so long?

Barack Obama's big win. Will the press now slam the brakes on his easy ride and provide tougher scrutiny?

Doubleheader debate. ABC's Charlie Gibson joins us to assess his role in moderating last night's Democratic and Republican face-offs.

Plus, home alone. Jay, Conan and Jimmy face the audience without their writers. Are they still getting laughs?


KURTZ: How is it exactly that the Iowa Republican caucus was won by a guy who the national media wouldn't give the time for most of the year? Did we simply miss the boat on Mike Huckabee? And how is it exactly that Iowa's Democratic caucus was won by a guy who the press was saying two months ago had little chance to catch Hillary Clinton, who, as we kept hearing, was inevitable?

And are journalists now climbing on the Barack Obama bandwagon?

One thing is clear, the pundits were rather hard on the former first lady after her third place finish Thursday night.


FRED BARNES, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: She needs a personality transplant, not some ads that are on health care details.

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS: This was a real rejection and a repudiation of everything that she has been trying to sell people on of who she is.

BOB SCHIEFFER, CBS NEWS: Are they going to conclude that either people just didn't like her or they just had the wrong message?

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: Obama, meanwhile, won praise for his victory speech and commentators began describing his Iowa win in the kind of racial terms that most had been avoiding.


JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC: No doubt about it, it was the Obama speech last night that certainly caught the attention of most political observers.

It was just an inspiring speech.


JUAN WILLIAMS, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: For a black man in America to win the Iowa primary is astounding. It is just -- it's history.

BILL BENNETT, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: A remarkable breakthrough this year, as the other group said. Ninety-seven percent, in fact, Iowa rural, white, farming state. Barack Hussein Obama, a black man, wins this for the Democrats.


KURTZ: So, with the New Hampshire primary coming up on Tuesday, is there any reason to believe that the new media spin is better than the old media spin?

Joining us now from Nashua, New Hampshire, Suzanne Malveaux, CNN's White House correspondent. In Manchester, New Hampshire, John Dickerson, chief political correspondent for And Mark Halperin, senior political analyst and editor-at-large at "TIME" magazine and author of the book "The Undecided Voters's Guide to the Next President."

Mark Halperin, Hillary clearly made mistakes, and her message of experience was not very exciting. But did the critical press coverage of Hillary Clinton hurt her, especially compared to the rather upbeat treatment of Barack Obama?

MARK HALPERIN, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Yes, it's hurt her badly and it continues, I think, to potentially hurt her badly. We are still at a tipping point, I think, in the Obama coverage. Will it be laudatory and breathless and say, isn't this exciting, or will he get the kind of scrutiny that a front-runner normally gets?

KURTZ: I want to come back to the question, but let me ask you, John Dickerson, whether you have picked up some resentment in the Hillary camp toward the press? I mean, here's what Bill Clinton had to say just the other day in New Hampshire. We'll put it up on the screen.

"Independent voters think you're polarizing," referring to his wife, "if someone else attacks you, even if that someone is Rush Limbaugh, even if you've been totally exonerated of every single charge ever leveled against you, which Hillary was, and some people forgot to tell you about that." "Some people," I think, meaning journalists -- John.

JOHN DICKERSON, SLATE.COM: Yes, I picked up the resentment by the ton. They have two main complaints about the press.

One is the point Bill Clinton was making, which is that everybody talks about her divisiveness as if it's a quality only she possesses, and makes no mention -- or they would say make no mention -- of the fact that Republicans have demonized her over the last many years. And the second complaint that they've been making for quite some time is that Obama is not getting the kind of scrutiny that Hillary Clinton gets. She cannot do anything without everybody jumping on her and parsing it and talking about her various problems.

And with Obama, whenever they try to present a storyline that suggests contradiction, she is called divisive for even bringing up any of these questions, and the press ignores them. That's their claim, anyway.

KURTZ: Right. Well, "The Weekly Standard" is delirious about the Iowa results. If I could hold this up, "The Fall of the House of Clinton," already.

Suzanne Malveaux, looking back, did the media make a mistake here by buying into, even indirectly, the narrative that Hillary Clinton, if not inevitable, was going to be almost impossible to beat for this nomination?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, there were some things that were happening. I think perhaps some people were not taking Barack Obama as seriously as they should have, and they weren't necessarily -- it was kind of hard to tell what the organization in terms of just the number of voters, young voters who were going to turn out. So I think that that was generally a surprise, because historically that just doesn't happen, they don't come out in huge numbers. We know he worked really hard for those numbers and ultimately got them.

I want to say one thing though, Howard, about this whole thing of race, because what -- in covering Obama before the Iowa caucuses here, you really did see an evolution and you did see a candidate who started to talk a little bit more about it. It wasn't just his acceptance speech.

He did talk about the fact that he was a black man, that he had the name "Barack Obama," and that running for president, that took a certain amount of courage and hope. So I think you saw a candidate who was growing on the stump, if you will, in the weeks leading up to the Iowa caucuses, and it really did kind of change the way people saw him, that he perhaps was a little bit more courageous in his delivery.

KURTZ: But you would agree, Suzanne, that that was certainly not the main emphasis of Obama's campaign on the stump? He didn't run as a Jesse Jackson or an Al Sharpton.

MALVEAUX: Oh, absolutely, he didn't run at all like that. And that's why it was so stark. That's why it was so obvious that when he started talking about overcoming -- the country overcoming slavery and the civil rights marches, you know, your ears perked up...

KURTZ: Right.

MALVEAUX: ... because you wonder, well, what is he doing here? What is he trying to do? And essentially, I think he was trying to appeal to whatever he feels is the better or the best in people. And I think that they started to respond to that.

KURTZ: All right.

Mark Halperin, let me play for you something from your former network, ABC. This was on "World News." Hillary Clinton was interviewed, and some interesting reporting that follows that.

Let's take a brief look.


SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: A lot of these issues, it's hard to know exactly, you know, where he stands. And people need to ask that.

KATE SNOW, ABC NEWS (voice over): While the senator was vague, her campaign pointed ABC News to specific examples to show how liberal Obama's positions have been. In 2004, Obama said he would vote to abolish mandatory minimum sentences for federal crimes.


KURTZ: Interesting to me. I did not know that Obama ever voted to establish or do away with those minimum sentences. And is that good journalism, what ABC did, or were they letting the Hillary campaign kind of point them in a certain direction?

HALPERIN: I think it was good journalism because I think the Clintons are right about one point. Senator Obama, although he feels highly scrutinized, because when you get in this arena you get more scrutiny than a person could ever imagine, he still has not had the kind of vetting certainly that Hillary Clinton has had, but certainly also, as I suggested before, as much as a normal front-runner has.

He is now the most likely next president of the United States. The Obama campaign has argued that the things that were pointed out by that ABC report are misleading or not representative, whatever. But I think the larger point, which certainly is animating Bill Clinton and his famous temper these days, that Obama simply has not gotten the kind of scrutiny someone on the precipice of being the Democratic nominee normally gets, is accurate.

KURTZ: All right. John Dickerson, we've now got the tape of Halperin saying that Obama is the most likely next president of the United States after one state has voted. So we'll save that just in case it doesn't turn out to be the case.

HALPERIN: Howard, I didn't predict that he would.

KURTZ: You said he's most likely.

HALPERIN: I said as a snapshot of right now, he is the most likely. If he loses the New Hampshire primary, I won't think that's true anymore.

KURTZ: All right.

John Dickerson, you touched on this before, but why is it -- where is the fierce scrutiny that all of these investigative reporters and all of these big news organizations like to inflict on anybody who is perceived as a front-runner, or at least equal to another candidate in the polls? Is there a certain skittishness about going after Barack Obama?

DICKERSON: There might be. Some of these stories have actually been covered, but they are little blips. And Mark's right, they haven't been covered with -- in the sheer numbers that you see for other candidates and other front-runners.

I think also what happens is the Obama as phenomenon story is a little bit easier, it's bigger, flashier, it's a phenomenon. And so that kind of crowds out the other stories about his record, which tend to be, you know, full of details that either journalists or perhaps readers don't follow as much as they follow the kind of grand, sweeping American narrative that Obama is now seen as a part of because of his extraordinary rise.

KURTZ: And just to underscore your point, yesterday, front page photos in "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post" -- we've put those up -- showing a kind of triumphant Obama. A "New York Times" story declared -- likened Barack Obama to JFK and Martin Luther King in one paragraph, I believe. And here comes the cover of "Newsweek," "Our Time for Change has Come," a quote from the Illinois senator, if we could put that up. And he is described in this piece, which is a very favorable piece, as being tall, handsome and blessed with a weighty baritone.

So that's what you call riding a media wave, folks.

Let me turn now to the Republican contest.

Mike Huckabee didn't get a lot of coverage, as I said at the top, for most of 2007. The day after he won Iowa, by a surprising easy margin over Mitt Romney, he did seven morning shows. Here's one of them on "The Today Show."


MATT LAUER, NBC NEWS: Let me take you back a couple of months. You were polling in the low single digits in Iowa. A lot of people were joking, "What's a Huckabee?"


KURTZ: John Dickerson, I mean, this guy was blown off by most of the press for 10 or 11 months, except on a couple of the cable shows. He was always on as a guest because he was endlessly available because he needed the free media exposure.

In retrospect, with the benefit of hindsight, wasn't that a blunder?

DICKERSON: Well, I'm not sure. Sure, let's say it was a blunder. But you've got to remember that the Republican field had at least three, if not four, incredibly serious candidates in McCain, Giuliani, Romney and Thompson, and they had all of the trappings, both in most of those cases the experience, plus they had money, they had name recognition, all of which may get overplayed in the press sometimes, but those are not unimportant qualities.

Huckabee had none of that, and for a long time also there was the question in the press -- and in Republican circles -- about the power of evangelical voters. There was a split in that group, and the fact that evangelical voters who had been so powerful in the Republican Party had not torn down Rudy Giuliani for a long time -- the press was predicting they would and they didn't -- there was reasonable evidence to conclude that the evangelical voter was at sea and was not the power that it once was. And so, therefore, the evangelical voters' ability to bring Mike Huckabee up was perhaps in question.

So, with all of those variables out there, there is some evidence that the press didn't miss it wildly. However, you know, clearly Huckabee's rise was not something that a lot of people were predicting.

KURTZ: Suzanne Malveaux, I mean, obviously journalists can't know this in advance, who is going to emerge, what kind of dark horse might get a lot of traction, but it does seem to me that we decide in advance who we think the front-runners are, and every four years it turns out, at least on one candidate, that we are wrong.

MALVEAUX: That usually is the case. But you know, I mean, being out here on the trail, obviously there is a certain amount of buzz that you get before things happen.

I remember at least it seemed it started off Hillary Clinton had a lot of buzz, lot of excitement. Then it turned to John Edwards just a couple days before the Iowa caucuses, there was a lot of talk about how he was going to emerge. And then -- and then really the days leading up, if not the day before, the buzz was all about Barack Obama.

So, I know that you kind of -- you get a sense, a feel, for the way people come out of these events, what are they saying, what are they feeling, what are they talking about. But sometimes obviously our predictions are wrong.

KURTZ: And since you mentioned Obama, Suzanne, I mean, just briefly, do you have a sense that journalists who cover the senator are somewhat sympathetic to his candidacy because it does have this sort of uplifting and historic nature?

MALVEAUX: Well, I think people -- they seem to come away with a sense that this is a simple message, it's an easy message, it's an inspirational message that people are responding to.

On the Hillary camp, you k now, talking to aides, I mean, clearly, just yesterday what happened, there were some lessons that were learned from Iowa that they've already started to incorporate. Two hours of answering questions from audience members.

KURTZ: Right.

MALVEAUX: Hillary Clinton telling Chelsea, move the barriers, move the chairs, get these folks in here. I want to prove that I'm the one who really has the substance here. And we heard a lot in terms of what she was saying yesterday...

KURTZ: Right. Right.

MALVEAUX: ... about false hope and that kind of attack. So, you know, clearly they're reacting.

KURTZ: Mark Halperin, on your book cover you have a bunch of presidential candidates. I don't see Huckabee on there.

You know, the question that viewers I think are asking is, who elected the press to anoint the front-runners in advance, you know, months and months before anybody has voted?

HALPERIN: Howie, I love my job but there's some things I hate about it. And you raised during this show two of those things.

One is I'm embarrassed about the way we treated Mike Huckabee. I include myself. I gave a speech in Arkansas several months ago, and I completely dismissed his chances when asked about him on his home turf. I'm embarrassed personally about that and I'm embarrassed for our profession.

I'm also embarrassed at the way, as we talked about in the beginning of the show, the way we careen back and forth between inevitable and dead. You know, you talked about it in the context of Hillary Clinton. Look at the coverage of John McCain.

People just want to write his obituary for no good reason, not look at his ideas, not look at the possibility of a comeback. It happens all the time in politics, and yet we careen back and forth. And again, I find it embarrassing that we do it.

KURTZ: Absolutely. And I appreciate your candor.

John Dickerson, you saw an incident yesterday involving FOX's Bill O'Reilly, who got into a bit of a spat with an aide to the Obama campaign who was standing in front of his cameraman. And he called into his own network to talk about it. Let's watch.


BRIAN WILSON, FOX NEWS: There are reports that there was a scuffle. Was there a scuffle?

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: No. No scuffle at all. I just removed him from in front of the camera.

WILSON: We have heard reports that there may have been profanities uttered. Were there any profanities uttered?

O'REILLY: I might have called him an SOB.

No one on this earth is going to block a shot on "The O'Reilly Factor."


KURTZ: John, was O'Reilly out of line, in your view?

DICKERSON: I think he was. There was a scuffle. I mean, he pushed the aide.

We all know what it's like to try and, you know, get past the little tricks and (INAUDIBLE) that campaigns put up to keep us from doing our jobs, and also in this case, there were safety issues where this took place. It's right by the doorway where the candidate's trying to get out.

KURTZ: Right.

DICKERSON: The issue at stake here was O'Reilly was trying to get Obama to go on his show. He probably would have had a better case to make if he'd been trying to ask Obama a substantive question instead of trying to get him on his show, which undoubtedly...

KURTZ: It was an effort at booking.

All right.

Dickerson, I want to see you throw some more elbows in these things.

John Dickerson, Mark Halperin, Suzanne Malveaux, thanks for joining us.

When we come back, Charlie Gibson was at center stage last night moderating not one, but two presidential debates in New Hampshire last night. We'll talk to him about that unusual experience.

And tonight, CNN 7:00 p.m. Eastern, will reair all four hours of that ABC/WMUR/Facebook debate, Democrats and Republicans.


KURTZ: It was an extraordinary spectacle, an anchor moderating a Democratic and a Republican debate on the same night on the eve of the New Hampshire primary. ABC's Charlie Gibson drew the assignment last night for what could turn out to be a pivotal moment in this campaign.


CHARLES GIBSON, MODERATOR: With all due respect, many of your fellows here on this stage have said you've had to moderate an awful lot of your views to get within the mainstream of the Republican Party and that you don't believe now what you believed when you were mayor.

Governor Huckabee, you've been accused of having been a tax and spend governor when you were in Arkansas and changing your beliefs now.

Governor Romney, I don't have to go into how many times they've called you a flip-flopper.

If we can afford a trillion-dollar war in Iraq, why can't we afford medical insurance for everybody?


KURTZ: And joining us now by phone from Manchester, New Hampshire, is Charlie Gibson.

Charlie, thanks for calling in.

GIBSON: Those two little parts of me you just played weren't back-to-back. I actually went down, went through everybody and why people had questioned their Republican credentials.

KURTZ: Well, you know, the compression of television, we couldn't get it all in. But...

GIBSON: Does television compress things? I didn't realize that.

KURTZ: Now, you used a somewhat unorthodox format for the first half of each debate. You told me in advance you were going to set the table, no 30-second limits, no lights, and get out of the way and let the candidates go at it.

How did you think that worked out?

GIBSON: I don't know. I'll let others judge.

I was pleased. The thing I wanted, Howie, I wanted two things. I wanted the candidates to engage with one another.

I was somewhat disappointed that they looked at me more than they looked at each other. Mrs. Clinton actually turned -- Senator Clinton turned and faced the others. The Republicans who were in a little more of a semicircle, because we had six of them, did turn and face each other a little bit more than the Democrats did, but I wanted them to talk to each other.

The second thing I wanted -- and it's -- I don't know -- it's just because I have a feeling about this system and I believe in it -- I wanted them all on the stage together. We had the unique opportunity of doing the Democrats and Republicans in one night, and so we did between the two debates. We brought the Democratic candidates out before the Republicans left and that, to me, was an absolutely critical moment. I think it just was demonstrative of the fact that the candidates have great respect for one another, because when you put yourself through this crucible, they know how hard it is.

KURTZ: Yes. I thought it sounded a little corny when you first described it, but it was a nice moment. And I think a lot of people enjoyed seeing them embracing each other and talking like politicians, as opposed to enemies.

GIBSON: You were a cynic when I told you I was going to try to do that?

KURTZ: It is hard to always put aside the cynicism that is inbred in my DNA.

GIBSON: You thought it was corny, did you, Howie?

KURTZ: No, I thought it was fine.

Now he's giving me a hard time now.

GIBSON: You thought I was corny, Howie?

KURTZ: See? See, this guy is very aggressive.

Now, you...

GIBSON: Corny, you said. Corny.

KURTZ: I said I think you ran the risk of being corny, but as I proceeded to say, I thought it was a very nice moment. We're seeing it there now up on the screen.

Now, you talked about letting the politicians go at it. John McCain and Mitt Romney did at one point. Let me play a little of that from last night's debate.


JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: My friend, can you spend your whole -- your whole fortune on these attack ads but it still won't be true.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: May I make a -- no, no. I get a chance to respond. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

I don't describe your plan as amnesty.


KURTZ: Now, Charlie, this went on for a while. So, was there a risk here that you would lose control of the debates when they really started beating up on each other?

GIBSON: No, I don't think so. Actually, that little portion was about immigration, and Scott Spradling from WMUR, who was questioning with me at that time, we both -- you know, we had the lights going, and actually those candidates had red lights. But we thought the discussion -- I suppose people look at the contentiousness of it, but I thought actually the discussion on amnesty was very substantive, and so we let it go.

KURTZ: And, you know, it was refreshing for me to see the candidates challenging each other, as opposed to getting into a debate with the moderator. But there was one point in the Democratic debate where you asked about the apparent military success of the surge and the candidates talked about, well, there's been no political progress in Iraq, and you came back with this...


GIBSON: Were it not for the surge, instead of counting votes we'd be counting bodies in the streets. And all of you -- all of you wanted the troops out last year.


KURTZ: Now, were you dissatisfied with their answers at that point? You kind of seemed like you were taking them on personally.

GIBSON: No, that was a moment that I don't probably think was my best moment of the night. But let me explain.

The problem in anything like this is that you have -- when you ask a question, you realize that they may all be in lockstep in the answers. So you just -- you know, occasionally it may be necessary to point up the other side.

And I certainly was not there to debate them. Indeed, I said at the beginning, the less of the moderator the better. And if I felt any disappointment at the end of the night, I kept thinking there's just been too much of me. And because you do want to stand away.

But I did think, because I had talked for a long time to all the camps about the format that I wanted, that I wanted them talking to each other, that I wanted to let this play. I wanted to de-emphasize, you know, the green light, the yellow light, the red light, and how you have to shut up.

There's too much intrusiveness of a moderator saying, OK, that's enough, hush up. Let them go. And I thought they engaged in the format. And as I say, there may still have been too much of me, but for the most part I thought they engaged well with one another.

KURTZ: A network anchor who didn't want to be the star of the show.

Just briefly, Charlie Gibson, as you probably know, CNN's going to reair this whole thing, the ABC/Facebook/WMUR debate tonight at 7:00 p.m.

How do you feel about getting this free air time?

GIBSON: Well, FOX is running a debate tonight, but among the Republicans. Are you running our debates on CNN? I didn't know it.

KURTZ: CNN is doing that. And I'm going to thank you for calling in and turn to somebody who knows more about that.

Charlie, thanks very much.

GIBSON: All right, Howie.

KURTZ: Good to talk to you.

And joining us now from New York is the president of CNN U.S., Jon Klein.

JON KLEIN, CNN U.S. PRESIDENT: Hey, Howie. It's a great show this morning.

KURTZ: Thank you so much for that recognition.

So was there -- why did you decide to do this? I mean, usually networks are not in the business of promoting what other networks and other anchors have done.

KLEIN: Well, I think we're at a time where all networks and all big media companies are kind of erasing some of the borderlines a little bit. And primarily, it seemed as if this was -- last night's New Hampshire debate was going to be such an important event in the course of the campaign that we thought it would be a great service to viewers who might have missed it to give them another chance to see it. And obviously everybody this morning on our air and others are talking about some of the highlights of the debate last night, and that will, you know, probably prompt some folks to want to now see the whole thing in context.

KURTZ: So the fact that it is literally yesterday's news, that it's all over the newspapers today, that doesn't deter you from putting it on for CNN viewers tonight?

KLEIN: I think most viewers want to know more about the candidates, they want to hear more from them, they want us, journalists, to step out of the way more and let the candidates speak. And we're very focused on doing that here at CNN whenever we can.

All day today we're going to be doing something called "Ballot Bowl," where you hear more of the candidates. And this is yet another opportunity to do that on behalf of the viewers.

KURTZ: As Charlie Gibson mentioned, there is a Republican debate tonight on FOX News at around the same time. It's now being called a forum because the state GOP has pulled out in a dispute about FOX's decision to exclude Ron Paul and perhaps some other candidates.

So, are you trying to stick it to FOX with some counter- programming?

KLEIN: We're not trying to. If that's one of the off-chutes of it, so be it. But mostly, it's an opportunity to give viewers a chance to hear Republicans and all of the viable Republicans and all of the Democrats -- or more of the Democrats -- debating and talking. And ours is going to go from 7:00 p.m. until about midnight tonight.

KURTZ: Jon Klein, is this the first step toward some broader journalistic cooperation between CNN and ABC News?

KLEIN: No, there's no, you know, conversations going on or anything like that. David Westin and I have a very good relationship of longstanding, so it was easy to reach out and come to a very quick agreement.

We only first broached this at about noon on Friday. I reached David as he was getting on a plane. David's the president of ABC News. As he was getting on a plane for New Hampshire, floated this by him, and to their credit, they responded very quickly and positively.

KURTZ: And why did you decide -- in other words, you hadn't seen the debate yet. It could have been a great debate, it could have been a boring debate, but you felt that the fact that both parties were going at it was something you wanted to grab for CNN?

KLEIN: At a time when there is now heightened interest in the election campaign, having both the Republicans and the Democrats together in one night, plus Charlie Gibson. I mean, he's awfully good, and the chance to see him help probe their positions was -- it just felt that it promised to be a pretty big and important event and one that we ought to let more Americans watch.

KURTZ: Just got half a minute here. Why not more cooperation with an outfit like ABC News? There's been speculation for years that CNN might partner with a broadcast network and have some kind of teaming up situation.

KLEIN: I think massive media companies tend to -- as they should -- look for self-interest first. And I think that's always historically been where these sorts of conversations have run up on the rocks.

I've been on both sides of them in the past, having worked at CBS News and CNN now. There are a lot of moving parts to that sort of thing. But I think you're seeing companies in general, media companies in general, be more willing to cooperate.

Look just last night. ABC News and Facebook and a local station, WMUR, getting together.

KURTZ: Right.

KLEIN: So I think you're going to see maybe more one-offs like that rather than necessarily any kind of mega merger type of thing.

KURTZ: All right. Jon Klein, you'll understand this. I've got to play some commercials.

KLEIN: Please do.

KURTZ: Thanks very much for coming in and joining us this morning.

KLEIN: Thanks, Howie.

KURTZ: And ahead in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, he won big in Iowa and he's riding a media wave. Is the constant press attention really boosting Mike Huckabee?

Plus, Fred's not dead. At least not yet. Did reporters jump the gun in predicting Fred Thompson would drop out of the Republican race?

And Jay, Conan and Jimmy back without their writers. Are they just as funny or not so much?


KURTZ: Well, we're really into the horserace handicapping now. The New Republic's Jonathan Chait writes after exactly one contest, and I quote, "Hillary Clinton is toast."

And on the morning of the Iowa caucuses, The Politico reported that sources close to Fred Thompson's campaign said that he would drop out if he finished poorly in Thursday's Iowa caucuses.

NBC's Tim Russert had this to say hours before the votes were tallied...


TIM RUSSERT, NBC NEWS: Unless Fred Thompson pulls a miracle tonight, I really do believe that he'll be withdrawing from this race. And odds are, endorsing John McCain.


KURTZ: Thompson finished a distant third in Iowa with 13 percent of the vote. And at last check is still in the race.

Joining us now to talk about the media's campaign spin, here in Washington, Clarence Page, columnist for the "Chicago Tribune." And Amanda Carpenter, national political reporter for

Clarence Page, what is this media obsession with predicting in advance who's going to drop out?

CLARENCE PAGE, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": We've always got to sound like we are on top of the news even before the news has happened. And we're also afflicted with MADS, (sic), Media Attention Deficit Disorder. I mean, it's like, you know, we live in the moment.

You know, if Barack Obama, for example, does not win New Hampshire Tuesday night, some of the conventional wisdom will shift again. And this is what's happened with Fred Thompson or with these various other candidates.

KURTZ: I guess there's no vaccine for that syndrome...

PAGE: You got it.

KURTZ: ... Amanda Carpenter. But doesn't this add to the kind of death watch feeling surrounding Thompson's campaign? I mean, the media hyped this guy when he was a non-candidate and have basically written him off now. Right?

AMANDA CARPENTER, TOWNHALL.COM: Well, you know, we've seen a couple of candidates drop off on the Democratic side. And I think some media people are eager to start counting people off on the Republican side as well.

KURTZ: After one state vote? Why? (INAUDIBLE) candidates?

CARPENTER: Sure. I mean, you saw -- I mean, even from the debates last night, I felt like the Democratic debate had a better quality to it just because there was less people on stage. And so I think people are eager to start, you know, contrasting candidates one- on-one against each other. And the sooner you can pair them off, the quicker you can do that.

KURTZ: Mike Huckabee on Monday -- it seems now about like four weeks ago -- he had a news conference and he was going to play a negative ad against Mitt Romney. And then he had second thoughts. And watch this tape and look at the reaction of reporters in that room.


MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I know that some of are you saying that, well, did you really have an ad? I want to show you the ad. You'll get a chance to find out exactly...


HUCKABEE: I want you to see it. This is what we planned to do.


KURTZ: The reporters had a very cynical reaction to Huckabee saying he's not going to air the ad, but, here, you can look at it one time.

PAGE: Right.

KURTZ: But it didn't seem to matter in terms of the Iowa outcome.

PAGE: Well, no, you're right. I think most people thought it was a pretty innocent little slip, if you want to call it a slip, on Huckabee's part. It was kind of like, just between you and me, I want to show you guys this ad so you know I've really got one.

You know, but for those in the media, we call that free advertising. You know, when a candidate produces an ad, doesn't pay for air time, but shows it through journalists, knowing that we're going to put it on the air. So, you know, it's that little disconnect.

KURTZ: Huckabee doesn't have much money. So, I mean, look at what this guy does. He goes on Jay Leno. He invites the press to watch him get a haircut. I love that video if we've got that. He talks to reporters on his plane. He plays in a band and everybody uses the pictures.

Is this 'round-the-clock accessibility working for him?

CARPENTER: Well, it certainly did in Iowa. I don't know if it will work the same in New Hampshire.

But I was talking to some people on the ground in Iowa when I was there, and it was interesting, because a lot of people didn't even know about this fake negative ad, and they didn't know he was going to be on Leno because it was so close to the cycle. So I'm not even sure you can say that added up to it. But certainly his charisma paid off there, we'll see if it does in New Hampshire.

KURTZ: I think that haircut thing must have been a presidential campaign first.

Now, talk about handicapping...

PAGE: He didn't pay $300 for it.


John McCain, every time I pick up the paper now it says he was left for dead. He was left for dead by the media last summer before anyone was paying attention when he had some fund-raising and staffing problems. Now he has a good chance of winning New Hampshire.

Now, do you have the sense reporters are really rooting for this guy and it's a good comeback story?

PAGE: I hope we are not rooting for him, but we do root for good stories. That's the thing. You know, I've always said the real media bias is for a good story. And sometimes we will hype a story when it's just a little glitch of an event.

I remember when Barack Obama was being written off for dead back in September. Folks talking about -- not quite dead, but saying, hey, he's in trouble. You know, Hillary Clinton was barreling ahead.

KURTZ: On life support.

PAGE: Yes.


PAGE: And Dave Axelrod and his people were saying, no, no, hang on, we're on our timetable.

KURTZ: But there is this McCain narrative impression. You don't see any stories, for example, well, there could be a Mitt Romney comeback in New Hampshire and he could bounce back from Iowa. I just don't sense -- I just don't sense a lot of sympathy there for Romney.

CARPENTER: Also, this is something that McCain has tried to bring out on the campaign trail, as well, though, the "I have this kind of survivor mentality." And at the end of the day, he is the man that said the surge was going to work. Now we see evidence of that. And so he has all the credit to go out and say, I was right. And that is a great story to write.

KURTZ: But do you think that journalists are more sympathetic to McCain than to Romney? At least at the margins in terms of the way these two men are portrayed?

CARPENTER: From what I've seen, yes, I think that is true.

KURTZ: All right.

We've got a lot more to talk about. I want to pick up more about the way that Barack Obama is covered by the press.

A reminder that tonight, 7:00 p.m., as we discussed earlier, CNN will reair the ABC/WMUR/Facebook presidential debates, Republican and Democrats. You can catch that tonight.

We'll be back in a moment.


KURTZ: Welcome back.

Amanda Carpenter, we were talking before the break about whether Mitt Romney gets sort of a chilly reception from the press. You were out with his campaign this week. How did it look to you?

CARPENTER: Yes, I was with him through the caucuses. And, you know, it's like he's almost -- he's so polished, he's always on. And sometimes it feels like reporters resent that, they want to see him mess up.

And (INAUDIBLE) one of the questions that struck out to me the most was, "Mr. Romney, do you feel like a product? The presidency is kind of like a product role. Are you a product?"

And he says, well, no, I feel like a human being. And it was actually quite funny. But you can kind of see this narrative and this mentality that they have against him.

KURTZ: Yes, they want to see some hair out of place.


KURTZ: All right. Clarence Page, "The New York Times" yesterday had a piece on the great pride that many African-Americans feel over Obama's victory. I think maybe we're wondering, was he for real?

PAGE: And astonishment.

KURTZ: Yes, exactly.

Is there a reluctance in the press to criticize Barack Obama too harshly because he represents this uplifting tale of racial reconciliation?

PAGE: I don't think there is that reluctance. In fact, now that he's a front-runner, viewed as a front-runner, I expect to see the coverage get tougher no matter who it is.

KURTZ: Why hasn't it happened yet? Why hasn't it happened yet?

PAGE: Because he hasn't been really perceived as the front- runner until, bango (ph), he actually won Iowa. And there's no denying it now. Actual votes or caucus votes have been cast.

But I think that, you know, for African-Americans, there's also been a healthy skepticism up until now, and a lot of folks who aren't as closely familiar with the political scene as some of us who have felt, well, is he just another symbolic figure, like a Jesse Jackson who runs to make a point, and not to actually score a victory. The fact that he's actually scored a victory in Iowa has caused black talk radio and the bloggers and every other -- barber shops and beauty parlors -- critical places. You know, people are taking notice now.


KURTZ: Amy Holmes said on this program last week if Obama started rolling toward the nomination the next day the headline would be, is America ready for a black president? We haven't seen that. Will we?

CARPENTER: I think people are just very -- they're surprised. And it's a feel-good story. And I think we're still kind of seeing the ruminations from that.

I mean, his victory speech was outstanding. You know, I'm a conservative and I thought, wow, this is something that really promotes unity, and it's something to feel good about. And they may be talking he is the self-esteem candidate now.

KURTZ: Conservatives seem to at least respect the guy, if not like some of his positions.

All right. A quick reality check before we go.

We're all talking about Iowa, New Hampshire, delegates and all of this. I think a lot of America might be possibly talking about Britney Spears being taken into police custody.

PAGE: Gee, you think?

KURTZ: So how much is all this breaking through as compared to a Britney story?

PAGE: Well, I think it's hard to miss a page one story that's headline, "Bam!" or "Obama!" or whatever. But this has been really big news. I think this is something that people are buzzing about.

And, you know, Britney, it's getting harder for her to grab attention now because there's been so many crazy things...

KURTZ: Because we've seen the act. Right.

PAGE: ... from her and her sister. It's just too much.

KURTZ: And Obama on the cover of "Newsweek." And I'm sure every television show will be focused on it.

Got to go.

Amanda Carpenter, Clarence Page, thanks for joining us.

Strike or not, the shows did go on. But could Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel really get laughs without those writers?

We'll go to the videotape. Stephanie Miller joins us next.


KURTZ: For David Letterman it was easy. He owns "The Late Show" and made a deal with the striking Hollywood union, so he returned to the airwaves this week with an odd-looking beard and a full staff of writers. But for Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel, ending their two-month hiatus meant facing the public without the writers who produce so much of their comedy.


JAY LENO, HOST, "THE TONIGHT SHOW": It's fun writing for yourself! You know what I'm doing? I'm doing what I did the day I started. I write jokes and I wake my wife up in the middle of the night and I go, "Honey, is this funny?"


KURTZ: Conan was also winging it with a new growth of facial hair.


CONAN O'BRIEN, TALK SHOW HOST: My entire life I've never grown a beard. I grew a beard out of solidarity for my writers and to prove that I have some testosterone.


KURTZ: Who better to assess the new late-night landscape than comedienne and radio talk show host Stephanie Miller? I spoke to her earlier from Los Angeles.


KURTZ: Stephanie Miller, welcome. STEPHANIE MILLER, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Welcome, Howard.

KURTZ: You've done nightly TV. You know the drill. How funny would you be without your writers?

MILLER: Oh, fine. Just start by bringing up my disastrous late night show that was canceled. Fine.

I'll have you know that I am doing this segment today with you completely without writers, Howard, but I didn't have time to grow in my beard. I'm so sorry.

KURTZ: I was noticing that puts you in a different category from David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel.

I had been wondering how funny would those guys and Jay Leno be with a much less scripted show, and here is what they're doing to fill time.

Jay Leno just the other night on the "Tonight Show" brought out his sidekick, Stuttering John Melendez, in unusual attire. Let's watch.

LENO: John Melendez in the mantini, ladies and gentlemen!

Yes, this strike has got to end.

KURTZ: Stephanie, you can't see it, but he came out in a very skimpy bathing suit.

MILLER: Well, you know, I think I speak for every woman in America, Howard, when I say Stuttering John in a thong, that and a box of wine and you've got yourself an evening.

KURTZ: Now, David Letterman, as I mentioned, you know, coming back with his writers because his situation is different. He settled with the Writers Guild. So we get more scripted material like this Top Ten List the other night, which was about the top 10 demands of the striking writers.

LETTERMAN: Here we go. Number 10, from "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," Tim Carvell, ladies and gentleman.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Complimentary tote bag with next insulting contact offer.

LETTERMAN: Number two, from "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," Chris Albers.

CHRIS ALBERS, STRIKING WRITER: I don't have a joke. I just want to remind everyone that we're on strike, so none of us are responsible for this lame list.

KURTZ: So, Stephanie, how much of an advantage is it for Letterman to have his whole writing team? MILLER: Well, you know, I think it's a huge advantage. You know, I think Conan O'Brien was spinning his wedding ring the other night, wasn't he?


MILLER: And you know, when men -- when men have to go to their accessories for humor, you know that they're in big trouble. So I think Letterman definitely has a leg up here.

KURTZ: Right.

Now these guys, particularly Jay Leno, say that they support the writers and they had to come back because they've been off the air for a couple months. Leno made the point that he couldn't -- he had 160 people's jobs to consider, 19 of those were writers.

Do you think that's a reasonable argument? Would you go on "The Tonight Show" if Jay called you up?

MILLER: Oh, well, Howard, clearly I'm here, so, you know, I don't think you probably know a bigger media whore than me, do you? So, sure, I would be there at the drop - and I'm a liberal. I should support the unions, but, you know, me first, Howard. Me first.

KURTZ: But are Leno and his compatriots in the position of, however much they try to dress it up, really crossing picket lines?

MILLER: Well, yes, I mean, you know, now Jay, I mean, of course is writing his own jokes, but, you know, that's what he's always done. I mean, you know, I'm in radio. People always ask me, "How many writers do you have?"

I'm like, "Writers? What, are you kidding? I'm in radio. This is like the slums of show business. We don't get writers."

So I mean, I think that he probably was writing a lot of his jokes anyway, you know, even when he had writers.

KURTZ: Right. But in fact, the Writers Guild has complained because Leno, who himself is a writer, is not supposed to do any writing. I mean, it's a very fine distinction there. You can't have your professional writers, you're not supposed to write, but he's doing a fairly lengthy monologue, the opening nights of this week.

MILLER: Well, you know, Howard, it's funny because, I mean, honestly, as a progressive I am a big union supporter, so I totally sympathize with that. But as a comedian that has bombed at Yuk-Yuks at midnight in Buffalo, New York, I don't know -- I sympathize with a host like Jay.

What are you supposed to do? How are you supposed to fill an hour every night and you're trying to keep all of your other people employed as well? So it's a tough one.

You know, otherwise the hosts are going to look like Robert Hayes in "Airplane" and just sweat for an hour every night.

KURTZ: Yes, there's only so many times you can bring out the staff in bathing suits.

Now, tomorrow, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert come back on the air on Comedy Central without their writers. Of course, those are much more heavily-scripted shows.

Do you think that all of them, and Stewart and Colbert included, will now have an impact on the presidential campaign? The candidates have kind of gotten a break the last couple months without these guys making fun of them.

MILLER: Well, yes, I mean, but again, you know, I think one of the bigger issues you brought up is in terms of, then you're more reliant on guests and which guests are going to cross the picket line. And particularly politicians that want union support.

KURTZ: But do you think our long national humor deficiency is over when it comes to politics even though they are kind of at half strength without their gag writers?

MILLER: Yes. You know, Howard, I've been tired of holding up the whole comedy world myself here, so I'm a little relieved because it's only us red-haired stepchildren in radio who have been doing the political humor for the past couple months.

So yes, I think people miss it. There's a lot going on with the political season heating up. So I am glad they are back.


KURTZ: We're out of time. Thanks for watching.