As the Spin Room Turns

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Inside the spin room

Five minutes before the debate ended, the spinners descended. Ed Rendell, Condi Rice, Karen Hughes, Andrew Cuomo worked the room full of reporters, cruising for interviews, soliciting interest, begging, essentially, for a chance to sell their guy. It was kind of pathetic.

But that's what this place is all about: Spin Row, where the ink- stained wretches wield sweet, if momentary, control over the professional flacks. Once, they may have shut us down. And tonight we pay them back.

And the rhetoric was totally devoid of surprise: Ask Donna Shalala who won, you get a solid vote for Gore. Ask Karl Rove the same question, you get a big shout-out for Bush. And Al Franken milled about, sounding sarcastic.

Until the spinners' entrance, the press room was pretty quiet; attention to the debate simulcast was swayed periodically by the arrival of new propaganda from red-T-shirt clad Gore-Lieberman volunteers. These people are unbelievable; the copies were still warm as they piled up on our desk. The Bush-Cheney entourage were a bit slower on the uptake — it took them a good 45 minutes to get warmed up. But once they got started, they produced their "issue clarification" packets with startling speed, maneuvering around the press desks in their tailored suits and Ralph Lauren dress shirts.

The Gore-Lieberman counterattacks were labeled "Reality Check" and addressed every single issue raised in the debate, from Social Security (incidentally, could someone please teach these poor candidates to pronounce this phrase? Phonetically, now: It's so-shul, not sossal) to education reform to prescription benefits. Bush-Cheney called theirs "Setting the Record Straight," and pretty much stuck to the same laundry list of issues.

The debate itself garnered little response from reporters: There was a muffled "Ooooh," when Bush made a pointed reference to Gore's age-old claim of inventing the Internet, but generally it was a quiet group. And that level of attention is probably testimony to the debate's importance: If you can get a room filled with hundreds of reporters to shut up and listen, you've already won a major victory.

The consensus here in the press enclave? Both candidates did what was expected of them: Gore hit Bush pretty hard, but Bush held his own. A couple of failed (perhaps misunderstood) attempts at humor didn't help Bush all that much, and he stumbled on a couple of key phrases on tax breaks. Much has been made of the fact that the debates were scheduled past Bush's usual bedtime — and the governor did look a bit peaked as the evening wore on — but in all fairness, 10 p.m. on the East Coast is only 9 p.m. in Texas. Gore seemed invigorated by the fight, but that may have had more to do with his overdone pancake makeup and blush than actual feeling.

By midnight, the press area was clearing out a bit — the die- hards stuck around, registering their parting shots, writing up stories to send back home. More than a few reporters were heard asking about the score of the Yankees-A's game. And as things wound down, I had one question left unanswered by all of tonight's pontificating. Where was the damn coffee in this place?