Are we excited yet?

In case all that talk about entrance polls and exit polls wasn't enough to get you lathered up, our man probes the inner secrets of TV on the caucuses.

Topics: George W. Bush, CNN, MSNBC, Al Gore, ABC, John McCain, R-Ariz., Brit Hume, C-SPAN,

Every four years, the Iowa caucuses provide a start to the presidential nomination race, a rare glimpse of farm subsidy issues and a preview of how television plans to cover an electoral process that many Americans have opted out of, except perhaps as spectators.

And can you blame them? Pre-election hype began over a year ago and the narratives of George W. Bush’s “coronation” and Al Gore’s vulnerability already seem played out. Not to mention the brief but exciting episodes covering the rise and fall of challengers Bill Bradley and John McCain. So now the challenge facing the familiar faces of cable and (to a lesser extent) network news lies in creating some interest among viewers. And, of course, themselves.

While the dark-horse dramas created by McCain and Bradley were creating sparks even a few weeks ago, the prospects for any real action in Iowa looked bleak. Bradley was already backtracking by the weekend, saying he would be satisfied with anything more than 30 percent of the vote. Matt Cooper, Time’s Washington bureau chief, called Bradley’s prediction “ridiculous,” adding, “You put a dead dog on the ballot and you’ll break 30 percent.”

And McCain, who spent no money and little time in Iowa, had written off the caucuses last fall. This didn’t stop anyone on TV from talking about him, however. At 9:30 p.m. EST Monday, Fox News Channel’s Brit Hume said, “We’re keeping an eye on the man who isn’t here — John McCain.” This, in part, was for the same reasons soap operas bring back evil twins who’ve been killed off in previous episodes: to keep the story moving.

Fortunately for those condemned to monitor the coverage, the surprisingly strong showing of both Steve Forbes and Alan Keyes and the virtual trouncing of Bill “Better Than a Dead Dog” Bradley gave the assorted pundits and spin doctors something to talk about. Something other than the contender who wasn’t there and the other who seemed out of contention, that is.

3 p.m. EST: You could feel the excitement on the airwaves. Well, on C-Span, anyway. The cinima viriti network was showing a live feed of Bush scaring babies in a mall (it might have been the boom mike hovering over his head) and (on C-Span 2) film of Gore from a rally in Davenport on Sunday. Tie-less and jacket-less, the veep looked relaxed and ready. Gone were the karate-chop moves of his Naomi Wolf phase (though his key line, “We must all become the change we wish to see in America,” sounds like something from “Kung Fu”).

The camera panned the corn-fed faces of the assembled Iowans as Gore worked the crowd, thanking vets (“Any veterans of World War Two here? Thank you for saving our country and our freedom”), teachers and nurses. His plea for an end to divisiveness based on race, gender or sexual preference did not seem to stir the mostly white audience — though his pledge to reform schools did. His digs at Bradley (“I believe the presidency is not an academic exercise … but a way to fight for working families”) seemed almost an afterthought, a swipe of the cat’s paw.

Meanwhile, on the news networks, it was all about Elian’s grandmothers and their itinerary.

3:50 p.m.: Pat “The Forgotten Man” Buchanan was on CNN’s “Talk Back Live,” taking the mall audience by storm. Buchanan stumps with the best of them, swathing odious opinions in crinkly eyed Irish charm. The TBL crowd is kind of an easy sell, though. The show is broadcast from the Turner mall in Atlanta that houses CNN HQ, and the audience is recruited from people who are shopping at 3 p.m. on a weekday — people who have nothing better to do than take an hour off from their mall prowling. Not much of a demographic.

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8 p.m.: Show time as the caucuses convene in Iowa. CNN’s Election 2000 (not to be confused with C-Span’s Campaign 2000 or MSNBC’s Decision 2000, let alone Comedy Central’s coming Indecision 2000) kicks off. Jeff Greenfield, Judy Woodruff and Bernard Shaw behind cascades of patriotic bunting are excited about their entrance polls and are already talking to reporters in the field (John King at Gore HQ, Jeanne Meserve at Bradley’s). An unfortunate use of split screen is employed, in which small boxes containing the anchors and the reporters appear before digital images of red, white and blue globules. The effect is like a really bad hangover.

8:10 p.m.: CNN’s first prediction: Gore will win by “a big margin” (pause for reflection) followed by a visual aid: a picture of Gore beside the word “Winner” (big) and a smaller “Defeats” beside a diminutive Bill Bradley.

8:20 p.m.: CNN estimates McCain will not finish in the top three. Twenty minutes after the caucuses have convened and the network is already sealing the deals, causing a slightly flustered sounding Woodruff to exclaim, “We don’t want to make it sound like the election is over!”

8:30 p.m.: C-Span takes us inside a Democratic caucus in Ames, while C-Span 2 brings us a GOP caucus in Decorah. Free of commentary and spin, these live feeds bring the mundane, small-d democratic reality of the process home in a way no reporter could. The Demos split into two camps as the chairman, Jim Hunter, asks for a representative of the Bradley side to speak. When no one volunteers, he sighs, “Not on national television.”

8:33 p.m.: MSNBC’s Brian Williams calls Forbes a strong second and Keyes “a strong No. 3.” Clinton acolyte Paul Begala, now an MSNBC political analyst, appears live from Washington and offers a groaner about Bush’s current predicament: “Roe vw. Wade was something he only thought about when he was fishing.” Williams, always the gentleman, forgives him the joke.

8:40 p.m.: On Fox, Hume calls Gore a winner, while reporter Jim Angle, with the Bradley camp, focuses on the senator’s unwillingness to combat Gore’s attacks. (Newsweek’s Howard Fineman will later appear on the same network and compare Bradley to Alan Alda — and not the playing-against-type Alda of Woody Allen’s films, either.) Despite the “live” brand on everything, most of this sounds like it could have been written yesterday. And probably was.

8:48 p.m.: On C-Span, some Gore and Bradley advocates fight over an undecided voter in Ames.

9 p.m.: On MSNBC, Tim Russert, hashes entrance poll data: 40 percent of the GOP voters polled identified themselves as members of the religious right, he says, while 34 percent numbered “moral values” among their “big issues.” This, says The Russert, mobilized the Forbes-Keyes assault flank — and McCain can only be smiling.

“McCain can take that circus all around the country and siphon off votes from Bush,” he says gleefully, and who can blame him? America is going to need a circus to stay tuned through March.

“There’s very little stopping the two men [Gore and Bush] from going all the way,” says Williams, stating the obvious. “If you’re the type of American who likes a fight, you’ve got to be shaking your head.”

9:24 p.m.: On C-Span, Democrats are reading resolutions they have drafted. No one is opposed.

9:30 p.m.: Fox (“We Report, You Decide”), with 4.8 percent of the vote counted, has Gore at 64 percent and Bradley at 34 percent. There are rumors of a record turnout.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerrey, who is in Iowa stumping for Gore, talks about “everyone” getting to know the veep (“Call me Al”). The senator is not to be confused with Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerry, who is in Iowa stumping for Bradley — though Kerry (not Kerrey) showed up in the middle of a Bush (not Bradley) rally Monday to shake the governor’s hand.

Follow?

9:40 p.m.: On C-Span, a Democrat presents a resolution concerning small-farm support. An argument ensues about the definition of a small farm: fewer than 360 acres or 320?

On C-Span 2, Republicans resolve to support a strong national defense.

9:45 p.m.: On Fox, Fred Barnes and Mort Kondracke have replaced Bill Kristol and Michael Barone, though either pair seems to be worth one Juan Williams, who sits on the opposite end of the dais. Forbes is beamed in from his campaign headquarters: “I am pumped,” he tells them. “I can unite this party with my bold and courageous message.”

Afterwards Hume asks his panelists, “He did say ‘pumped,’ didn’t he?”

9:57 p.m.: On C-Span 2, A Republican woman says hi to her friends who are watching in Decorah. “You don’t really think they’re still filming, do you?” the GOP chairman jokes. “They ran out of tape an hour ago. They just wanted to see how long we would go.” The caucus adjourns. It’s 9 p.m. in Iowa.

10 p.m.: Tom Brokaw takes the reins at MSNBC, quizzing McCain (in New Hampshire) on a new ad of his in which he is touted as the only candidate with the experience to run the military. Gary Bauer (who finished a dismal fifth) has canceled his appearance on the show, and Orrin Hatch has announced a press conference for Tuesday that is presumed to signal “auf Wiedersehen.” The thought of a GOP primary without either candidate hits about as hard as hearing that Gummo left the Marx Brothers.

11:30 p.m.: ABC finally weighs in as “Nightline” host Ted Koppel parses the meaning of “winning vs. declaring victory.” The new “Nightline” set looks like a work in progress, or an architect’s loft in SoHo, and Koppel still appears slightly uncomfortable on his backless bench. (“Who do you have to know to get a real chair in this place?”)

Now it is announced the turnout was lower than expected. Gore is declared the winner with 63 percent of the vote (to Bradley’s 35 percent), and Bush’s 41 percent is not that much ahead of Forbes’ predicted 30 percent and Alan “Mosh Pit” Keyes’ surprising 14 percent.

“Nightline” correspondent Terry Moran, reporting from Gore headquarters, seems to sum up the whole dilemma of covering this race when he calls the veep’s “a victory of organization over enthusiasm … The question is, is there magic in this campaign? Can he pull people to him?”

11:46 p.m.:On MSNBC, “Hardball” host Chris Matthews is in a bar in Hanover, N.H., with McCain and his wife, tossing softball questions: “Does your husband still surprise you?” This is followed, significantly, by an ad for a sleep aid called D-Snore. By commercial’s end, Matthews is back, shouting in the prize-fight mode that NBC thinks is worth $5 million. The McCains have left the building.

11:55 p.m.: On “Nightline,” Bradley, in an interview filmed earlier, is deflecting defeat as Koppel tries to press him. Koppel: “It looks like Al Gore is going to beat you 2-1.” Bradley: “That depends how you come at this.”

12:07 a.m.: Back in the bar with Matthews, biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin seems to have accepted her journalist’s mantle. “All of us in the news business,” she says, “hope the McCain threat can be kept alive. Otherwise it’s going to get pretty boring.”

Maybe Matthews will surprise her.

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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