The Crowded Bus: Cable TV, the Internet, a Massive Media Presence and a Front-Loaded Primary Schedule Have Dramatically Changed the Pace and Tenor of Presidential Campaign Coverage. There's No Such Thing as "Off-Broadway" Anymore

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In early 1968, Republican presidential candidate George Romney walked into a New Hampshire gun and sporting goods store and started arguing with the owner about the merits of a modest gun registration system. The Associated Press' Walter Mears and five other print reporters clustered unobtrusively by the counter, watching delightedly as politician and businessman sparred for half an hour.

Twenty-eight years later, Republican presidential candidate Lamar Alexander, clad in plaid, entered a New Hampshire fish and tackle store. Mears again shadowed the candidate, but this time observing the man's common touch was no easy task. So many reporters and television camera crews were trailing Alexander that the media mob couldn't squeeze into the store. A press pool was designated, and several minutes later someone appeared in the cold to deliver a solemn report about the brand of tackle Alexander had examined--a descent into absurdity that struck Mears as "hilarious."

"The way it's become now, the media crowd is such that it smothers the story," says Mears, who has retired from the campaign trail and sifted through 40 years of memories for his book "Deadlines Past," due out in October. "The story can't happen except as it involves candidates and the media."

As the 2004 presidential race gears up, the media will confront the challenges of gaining sustained access to candidates and distilling reams of information into meaningful stories while trying to avoid instigating those stories. Reporters will face those demands during an intense election cycle when early fundraising needs, a crowded Democratic field and an accelerated primary season have launched the presidential contest and the accompanying media coverage long before voters are paying attention.

Over the past three decades, the pack of reporters tracking presidential campaigns has ballooned beyond the club-by fraternity Timothy Grouse bared so wittily and wickedly in his classic book on the 1972 campaign, "The Boys on the Bus." Somewhere along the way, as the ranks of campaign reporters swelled with broadcast journalists and cable reporters, as Watergate whet a generation of reporters' appetites for scandal and Vietnam soured relations between politicians and the press, presidential candidates became more shrouded by image handlers and message makers.

Simultaneously, political information began to stream to the public from myriad new sources. No longer are the nation's newspapers and broadcast networks the sole purveyors of political insights. Modern political junkies can sift through campaign silt as eager prospectors panned for gold, evaluating candidates' strengths and weaknesses on C-SPAN, learning about campaign machinery through Internet sources such as Hotline or The Note and absorbing hours of campaign analysis by cable pundits. The information overload has heightened reporters' responsibility to remain discerning authenticators and synthesizers.

"The role of the journalist is more crucial than ever," says Ed Fouhy, whose television career as reporter, producer and Washington bureau chief spanned three networks and 26 years. "What we need is the journalist's skills to validate information, to sort it out, to point out to us what's important and what isn't."

The media's constant presence and all-news-all-the-time mentality have altered the nascent stages of presidential campaigns, increasing pressure on the candidates to appear prepared and polished from the very start.

"It certainly changes the nature of what happens in Iowa and New Hampshire because these are no longer off-Broadway places," says Des Moines Register political columnist David Yepsen, who has covered presidential politics since 1975. "It used to be candidates could come and meet some people, try out some themes and one-liners, and now the candidate has to have that ready as soon as he gets here. There's a camera and a microphone and a boom mike on the day the guy sets foot in Iowa. …