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Fighting the battle of the spin room

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It wouldn’t feel like a proper presidential debate without the spin room — the frantic free-for-all where each candidate’s surrogates and sometimes the candidate himself puts the best gloss on his performance.

The spin operation is the last chance for each campaign to plant some spicy quote or piece of self-interested information in the ear of a reporter.

At Thursday’s night Democratic presidential debate in Orangeburg, S.C., the campaign with the most spinners on hand was Clinton’s: pollster Mark Penn, strategist Mandy Grunwald, spokesman Howard Wolfson, and surrogates including EMILY’s List President Ellen Malcolm and Ohio Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones were all working the room, with Penn seeming to be in the most demand.

Clinton herself, of course, did not deign to make an appearance — she’s the front-runner and did need not to show up. But Sen. Chris Dodd, Sen. Joe Biden, Rep. Dennis  Kucinich, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, and former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska all were there in person to spin their own performances.

The most impassioned spinmeister was — no surprise really — Gravel.

Previously unknown even to some political junkies, Gravel shook up the debate itself with his uninhibited attacks on the three front-runners (John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama) whom he accused of threatening nuclear attack on Iran.

Gravel is so far outside the boundaries of carefully modulated and poll-tested debate rhetoric that he was an invigorating force both in the debate and in the spin room.

Sweating and emotional, Gravel told reporters, “I’ve been blanked out by the media,” but seemed to think that his debate performance had broken him into the big time.

“When a person like Hillary, Obama and Edwards go to a major group in this country and say that ‘nothing is off the table for Iran,’ that’s code for telling them ‘we’ll use our nukes if we have to,’” he said. “Who are you prepared to nuke? I’m not prepared to nuke anybody.”

He also regretted that moderator Brian Williams had not asked him about hedge funds. “Every one of those people except Kucinich is taking hedge fund money,” he claimed. “Hedge fund money is the manipulation of the economy overseas and nobody knows anything about it…. If the world economy tanks, it’s going to be because of the hedge funds.”

Apart from Gravel, the spin fell into three categories: “we did fine,” “our guy was the only one who…” and “too bad the format or the questions didn’t allow our guy to show himself to his best side.”

“If he had more time I think he could have expanded more on some of his ideas,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., there to spin for Dodd.

Strategist “Mudcat” Saunders of the Edwards campaign complained, “There weren’t enough questions about economic fairness. I mean you’re sitting here in South Carolina; it’s got the third highest unemployment rate in America.”

He also said, “It’s very telling that John Edwards is the only one saying anything about anything specifically. Nobody would talk about how they were going to pay for health care, for instance” except Edwards. 

Also in the “our guy was the only one” category was Steve Murphy, a consultant with the Richardson campaign. “Bill Richardson alone among the major candidates running on the Democratic side is for withdrawing all of our troops from Iraq. There is a very clear distinction between him and all the other real contenders for the nomination — all the senators today voted to leave an indeterminate number of troops for an indefinite period of time.”

Kucinich claimed victory, saying, “I was able to demonstrate a clear difference between myself and my colleagues from the Senate who voted for the war and have forfeited a chance to claim that they’re for peace. They not only voted for the war but have said that all options are on the table with respect to Iran — which is a clear call for war.”

Clinton had the most troops
The Clinton forces had their storyline down in disciplined fashion: Hillary the Hawk was their theme.

“Her answer that she would retaliate if the country were attacked showed how strong she was,” said Malcolm. “She made it very clear she would be in charge and she would protect the country; and ‘don’t mess with us.’”

Pollster Penn seemed relieved that Clinton had done well on the national security issue: “When she explained what she would do to defend the county if attacked, it was a very powerful answer that she really, really nailed.”

From the Obama camp came the line that Obama “looked strong and confident,” in the words of spinner Robert Gibbs, and that “in order to change our country we have to change our politics. That was the key message for him tonight and that’s the one he delivered.”

But did it come across to debate viewers exactly what “change our politics” means? “Absolutely,” insisted Gibbs. “He mentioned it in his answer on abortion that we can stop arguing about what we know we disagree on and start talking about what we do agree on, like preventing unwanted pregnancies.”

Most of the spinners were too polite to criticize the performance of any of their rivals. “That’s for you guys to determine,” said Grunwald when asked how Clinton’s rivals had performed.

But one former Republican congressional staffer, who attended the debate and spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “Obama bombed, he was flat. He seemed so unsure about his answers. Hillary was very disciplined; she seemed aiming at the general election audience.”

But Clinton has more debates and more spin to get through before she can make it to the general election.