It was an unusual question for a secretary of state.
"Did you dress up as a liberal" for Halloween, conservative commentator Laura Ingraham asked on her radio show yesterday. "No, no, no," Condoleezza Rice replied. "I didn't dress up as anything."
Two weeks before crucial midterm elections that could tip the balance of power in Congress, Rice has been on a media blitz that appears aimed mainly at conservative media outlets, particularly radio talk shows. Secretary of state is traditionally a nonpartisan position, and Rice's media itinerary differs sharply from the practice of her predecessors during election campaigns, according to State Department records.
Rice has given nine interviews on radio, starting with three appearances on Oct. 24 during "Radio Day," when 42 radio hosts, most of them conservatives, were invited to the White House to spread the administration's message to President Bush's political base.
In the past two days, Rice has appeared on four radio shows, including that of Ingraham, a best-selling author for her books that attack liberal "elites"; Bill Cunningham, a Cincinnati conservative; and Glenn Beck, another conservative, who appears on nearly 200 stations.
Rice also appeared in the past week on CNBC's "Kudlow and Company," hosted by conservative economic commentator Lawrence Kudlow, and "Morning in America," a radio show hosted by prominent Republican William Bennett. During this 12-day period, the only outlets Rice spoke to that did not have conservative leanings were Bloomberg TV, the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. and the New York Times.
Many of the hosts lavishly praised Rice and her work as secretary of state. "As an American living in the heartland . . . which beats throughout America, I'm proud to have you as secretary of state," Cunningham said, urging her to run for president. Beck called her "one of the most remarkable people of our age."
Generally, the questions on even the conservative shows were devoted to foreign policy, allowing Rice to present a strong defense of the "really visionary" Bush and his policies, such as his "very skillful diplomacy" on the North Korean nuclear crisis. But sometimes the questioning veered toward the partisan, forcing Rice to do a quick tap dance away from the questioner's opinions.
Kudlow quizzed her about whether she supported Bush's formulation that terrorists will win if Democrats take control of Congress, which Rice ducked. Then he asked if Democratic control would "disrupt, interfere and stop the processes you're describing" for leaving Iraq.
"The key to me is that this president has a program for the war on terror and it's a program that is going to win, and he needs the support of everyone for that program," Rice answered. "I frankly haven't heard an alternative posed for how we fight the war on terror except on the offense."
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the confluence of media spots with the election was coincidental. He said frequent appearances on radio and television simply reflect Rice's style. "In her approach to the job, she believes a big part of the job is to talk about foreign policy to the American people and also to answer their questions," he said, noting that Rice also travels across the country giving speeches more frequently than her predecessors did.
Bloomberg TV interviewer Al Hunt, who was once a liberal commentator for the Wall Street Journal and CNN, asked Rice about the rash of interviews for a program that will appear this weekend and whether they were tied to the election.
"No, I'm just out doing what I always do, just trying to explain American policy," Rice said. "I've always thought that it's an important part of the role of the secretary of state to get out and talk to Americans in any way possible about our foreign policy."
As national security adviser during Bush's first term, Rice drew fire for giving speeches around the country in crucial battleground states shortly before the 2004 election, a practice none of her predecessors had done. The White House at the time noted that Bush had directed the secretaries of state and defense to avoid getting enmeshed in the presidential campaign. But the White House defended Rice's speeches, saying "part of the job today of national security adviser is to discuss our nation's national security policy."
During her confirmation hearings for the current job, Rice was asked in written questions about her speeches during the 2004 presidential campaign and was asked to confirm she would abstain from activity that might be construed as partisan. "If confirmed as secretary of state, I intend to continue the tradition in that position of not actively participating in public campaign or political events," Rice wrote back to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Colin L. Powell and Madeleine K. Albright, Rice's immediate predecessors, made only infrequent appearances in the media in the two weeks before elections, according to the listing of their interviews on the State Department Web site.
In the 2002 midterm elections, Powell did just two spots -- with National Public Radio and Ellen Ratner, who says she is "liberal and proud," on Talk Radio News. In 2004, Powell appeared only on Bennett's show and CNBC. Albright, who frequently said she had her "partisan instincts surgically removed" when she became secretary, did a couple of interviews on network television before the 2000 elections and none before the 1998 elections.
"The tradition for secretaries of state has been to stay out of partisan politics and to stay above the fray," said Karl F. Inderfurth, director of the international affairs graduate program at George Washington University and assistant secretary of state under Albright. "They take office as the secretary of state of the United States of America, not of the Republican or Democratic party."