CHICAGO -- For reporters covering the presidential campaign, the end of the Democratic primary race has brought with it a welcome break from four- and five-event days and frantic travel schedules. But while the pace on the campaign trail has slowed down, the same cannot be said of the alternative race playing out in cyberspace, across telephone lines and e-mail inboxes.
The past week on the Barack Obama bus involved a mere smattering of town halls and roundtables, one full press conference, a brief gaggle on the tarmac and a Father's Day address on parental responsibility; but the quest by both camps to set the tone of the campaign and grab control of the daily message has led to frequent conference calls and rapid-fire press releases. At this stage in the race, rebuttals and pre-buttals are filling the void created by the end of the protracted nomination fight.
It is not uncommon on any given day to receive four or five messages from John McCain's campaign responding to comments Obama is set to make hours later. The lines in question don't even have to be new. Tucker Bounds, a McCain campaign spokesman, has become particularly adept at sending out responses to Obama events, even those in which the Illinois senator covers no new ground or levels no new criticisms against McCain. For their part, the Obama campaign favors "Fact Check" e-mails that dissect McCain's statements after events.
Both strategies are intended to keep up pressure on the other side. They are made possible by the fact that both campaigns tend to send out prepared remarks ahead of time, in order to drum up attention for a new policy proposal or a new line of attack. Live television feeds contribute to the impressive turnaround, helping campaigns respond quickly, sometimes while the speech is still in progress.
The newest source of information from the Obama campaign is its "Fight The Smears" Web site. It's designed to try to harness the Internet to dispel the kind of insidious rumors -- rumors spread through the Internet -- that have led voters at town halls to question the senator about why he opposes saying the Pledge of Allegiance (he isn't) and others to believe he's Muslim (he isn't). But it remains unclear whether addressing these matters will only perpetuate them by attracting news coverage.
Then there are the conference calls, like the one the Obama campaign convened Wednesday to blast McCain for saying on NBC's "Today Show" that it was more important to reduce the number of casualties in Iraq than to figure out when the troops would be able to come home. The McCain campaign followed with its own call hitting back at Team Obama for what it said amounted to a distortion of McCain's comments.
Incidentally, it was on the Obama call that day that surrogate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., gave a vigorous defense of his candidate's then-VP vetter Jim Johnson, who came under fire for having received favorable loans from mortgage lender Countrywide Financial.
"Jim Johnson is a very experienced, very discreet, very capable individual who is performing a voluntary function without pay, without any interest. He's not seeking a job and he is acting completely independently to gather information about somebody, and that's it," Kerry argued.
The day before, during a press conference after his only public event of the day, Obama had defended Johnson using much the same argument.
"Everybody who is tangentially related to our campaign I think is going to have a whole host of relationships. I would have to hire the vetter to vet the vetters. I mean, at some point, you know, we just asked people to do their assignments," he said. "These aren't folks who are working for me. They are not people who I have assigned to a job in the future administration."
By Wednesday, the Johnson issue had played out in print, on the Internet and on the airwaves, and he was out.
All this news -- from big stories like the unvetted vetter to smaller ones like the Obamas' fist bump -- is amplified by new phenomena like YouTube along with older pop media influences like "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central and the late night network comedy routines.
Jen Psaki, an Obama campaign spokesperson, summed up the situation as a symptom of the intense interest this historic race for the White House has sparked and the way news organizations have adapted to meet the needs of information seekers.
"Because there's so much interest, there's a desire to feed that," said Psaki, who worked on Kerry's campaign in 2004. She said that, while the BlackBerry was around in 2004, e-mails and the Internet did not drive the news cycle nearly as much as they have in this campaign. The high level of interest combined with the technological ability to stay abreast of each new minute-by-minute development has led to information overload.
But while it may sometimes feel like a telephone and an Internet connection are all that's needed to cover this election, the fact remains that nothing beats being there live and in person, taking in the story with all five senses. E-mail can't transmit the murmurs at a town hall meeting when Obama is asked about flag pins or the pledge. A TV set won't let you feel the heat and humidity of Quincy, Ill., where on Saturday Obama helped volunteers fill sandbags along the flooding Mississippi River. And a telephone call won't get across the energy in the packed sanctuary of the black church where Obama spoke Sunday. Nor can you get a feel for the day-to-day of the campaign or for its staffers without being there.
The virtual world of modern campaign coverage may be expanding, but it remains virtual. There is no substitute for reality.