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A Tiny Iowa Paper and One Very Big Name: Obama

By Peter Slevin
CARROLL, Iowa -- Douglas Burns, a columnist for the Daily Times Herald, has a level of access to Sen. Barack Obama that any major media reporter would covet. He has interviewed the presidential candidate no fewer than six times, including a pair of 15-minute sessions during the crazy final days of December.

For Burns, 38, who writes for a newspaper that sells roughly 6,000 copies a day in rural western Iowa, the contacts were serious business. He prepped and planned and filed story after story for the paper and the Iowa Independent website.

When the telephone rang on a recent Saturday, sure enough, it was one of America's most sought-after politicians on the line.

Again.

"Look, they kept giving me interviews," Burns said, "and I thought I was putting some good questions out there."

The Obama campaign developed a reputation for doing the little things as it carefully built its organization in Iowa, where personal relationships famously matter in politics. The effort to win coverage in the local media was more ambitious, by far, than anything other campaigns put together.

Tonight's results will tell whether all that i-dotting and t-crossing paid off.

In March, just weeks after Obama declared his candidacy, one of his Iowa spokesmen, Josh Earnest, made the 100-mile trip from Des Moines to Carroll. He sat with two staffers in Burns's office on Court Street asking questions about the community and taking notes. The conversation lasted 90 minutes.

"He listened and, dammit, they were good! You could really tell," Burns said. "Those early efforts to cultivate relationships probably helped. When they showed us a lot of respect, I looked at it that they were showing Carroll a lot of respect."

Burns asked Earnest and his colleague Tommy Vietor for time with Obama, and they obliged.

"We try to make time for local press after every stop, especially in smaller towns with weekly papers and smaller dailies," Vietor explained by email. "Often the interviews are one-on-one in classrooms or the weight room if we're in a gymnasium."

On Dec. 26, Obama gave interviews on a Mason City basketball court to local television station KAAL and the Mason City Globe Gazette. In Webster City, he talked to the Webster City Daily Freeman-Journal. In Fort Dodge, it was local radio and the Fort Dodge Messenger. In Carroll, Burns got a call.

Burns first interviewed Obama in March in nearby Denison. Next came a September conversation in Carroll where Burns was joined by Lorena Lopez of La Prensa, a Spanish-language newspaper in western Iowa. The week after Thanksgiving, the interview was in Audubon.

He also spoke three times by telephone with Obama, including two conversations sandwiched around Christmas.

Burns credited the Obama camp for giving him interviews although he asked what he considered challenging questions, including queries about Obama's drug use and his foreign experience.

"I wasn't just rolling over," Burns aid. "They still did interviews with me after that, which is to their credit. They kept taking the questions."

His treatment by other campaigns was mixed, with no candidate making himself as available as Obama did.

Clinton spent 45 minutes at Sam's Sodas and Sandwiches in downtown Carroll with Burns, Lopez and two other reporters.

"I got in five questions," Burns said. "It was almost surreal. You're sitting at a local diner where you used to get milkshakes as a kid...and you're sitting across from probably the most important woman in the world."

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney gave Burns 15 minutes, while former North Carolina senator John Edwards made no effort to reach out to the local media during his four visits, Burns said: "We had to compete in a gaggle with national and regional reporters. It was definitely a different strategy."

For nearly a year, Burns has covered the candidates and their surrogates, their ground operations and their broadcast commercials. He believes from watching the campaigns and talking with his readers and friends, that Obama is headed to victory tonight.

The headline on his column the other day was, "Why Barack Obama will win the Iowa Caucuses."

After the counting is done, the political caravan will move on, far from Carroll.

"On Monday, I have to go back to covering streets and sewers and eight-man football," Burns said, "and I'm actually looking forward to it."

By Web Politics Editor  |  January 3, 2008; 5:01 PM ET
 
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