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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Seven super surrogates

Obama surrogate Susan Rice.
Rice’s ability to explain foreign policy in digestible soundbites has aided Obama.
Photo: AP

A good surrogate is hard to find. Just recall Bill Clinton’s “fairy tale,” Samantha Power’s “monster” and Phil Gramm’s “nation of whiners.”

Every few weeks, another surrogate is thrown under the bus, or at least dropped off at the next stop, for saying something ill-advised, off-message or just plain dumb.

“The traditional use of a surrogate was to add some third-party validation to a campaign’s message, but these days, just as often they’re simply used to feed the massive media machine,” said Republican consultant Todd Harris, who worked for Fred Thompson’s presidential campaign.

“You’ve got 24-hour cable news, newspapers, blogs, local TV, national TV. It’s an endless beast that needs to be fed, and a candidate can’t be everywhere at once.”

Despite its sound and fury, not that many people tune into cable news in the middle of the day, but the political and press hacks who define the contours of further coverage have it playing constantly in the background.

“I think it’s very important that if any issue is being talked about, that somebody is addressing it,” said Democratic consultant Marion Steinfels, who worked as the deputy communications director for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. “You need to address almost anything that is being said on TV."

Surrogates were once mostly used to represent the candidate before niche constituencies — Iowa famers, for example — but these days, it’s harder to offer different messages to different groups, lest the contradictions draw attention on on their way to primetime.

The danger in addressing whatever the glowing box says, of course, comes from surrogates creating a new tempest in a television tube that needs addressing in turn.

“Time after time, when surrogates slip up, it’s often because they allowed their own philosophical beliefs to intrude and step on the campaign’s message,” noted Harris.

“A good surrogate is as important to a campaign as a bad surrogate can be damaging — and I think we’ve seen examples of that on both sides,” he added.

Here, then, are seven of the indispensable surrogates who’ve filled their niches, stayed on-message in the face of gotcha questions and given a good name to their respective candidates of choice:

Claire McCaskill

As Barack Obama's national campaign co-chair, the freshman senator from Missouri has been a ubiquitous presence since endorsing Obama in January. She’s been a frequent and flawless presence on cable news and in the final days of the Democratic primary she worked the phones to secure last-minute superdelegate nods.

“It’s nice to have super-mom on your side,” said Harris about the mother and stepmother of six.

“Being a surrogate for Barack is easy,” McCaskill told Politico. “I speak from the heart and I try to answer people’s questions the way a real person would. I just use common, real language to explain what he’s about and I think that works very well.”

Not so easy, though: “I thought I’d chip in every once in a while, but it’s taken up a lot more time than I’d anticipated.”

Artur Davis

“Mark my words, Obama will not lose a state primary,” the Alabama congressman was overheard saying earlier in the year. Of course, Obama went on to lose a whole lot of them, including Ohio, Texas and California. Still, it’s nice to have surrogates like that on your side.

Davis — Obama’s law school classmate — has been a regular stand-in for Obama at campaign events across the country, and helped lure superdelegates in the lower chamber when the senator needed them most.

“The most important thing to remember when you’re surrogating,” said Davis, "is that you’re advocating for the candidate and that’s tough for lawmakers because we’re used to talking about our own policies and views.”

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