By David Bauder
The Associated Press
NEW YORK - Before Iowa, before New Hampshire, the people who want President Bush's job have to get past Tim Russert.
The moderator of NBC's Meet the Press has made the top-rated Sunday talk show an integral part of the political process, particularly now during the presidential campaign prelims when candidates are starved for attention.
"There is such a thing as a 'Russert primary,"' said Joe Trippi, campaign manager for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.
Dean has already learned how Russert can help and hinder a campaign.
A strong appearance on Meet the Press last summer, Trippi said, was a pivotal first step in Dean's transformation from "who's he?" status to a strong contender among the nine Democrats seeking the nomination.
Yet Dean's June 22 interview, where he appeared uncertain answering some questions and had an electric exchange with Russert over American troop strength, triggered his first round of negative press coverage.
"To be president of the United States, you have to make very difficult decisions about very complicated issues, and the way to prepare yourself to make tough decisions is by answering tough questions," said Russert, nearing his 12th anniversary as Meet the Press moderator.
"Rather than be surprised when someone is elected about how they view the world ... now is the time to find out," he said.
Russert's interviews can be tough, but he has a signature style that politicians can anticipate: finding statements that reveal an inconsistency and confronting politicians with the quote.
"Tim likes to do the unkindest thing of all, which is throw your words back at you," said Paul Begala, CNN Crossfire host and a frequent Meet the Press guest as an aide to former President Clinton. "If you're going to do his show, you had better know everything you have said. Because he will make you eat your words."
Trippi said there's a little bit of "gotcha" in Russert's style, "but there's also a very fair period of time for you to go in and explain it. You're going to get hit on this stuff anyway by one of the Democrats or Bush."
In Dean's most recent appearance, he struggled at times to explain an evolution in thinking about a balanced budget amendment and the death penalty. Critics saw waffling; fans saw a rare example of a politician thinking out loud.
The former governor also could not precisely answer Russert's question about the number of Americans on active military duty, then said that expecting him to know that fact was "silly."
"That's like asking me who the ambassador to Rwanda is," Dean said.
"Oh, no no no, not at all," Russert replied. "Not if you want to be commander-in-chief."
Trippi said he was genuinely taken aback by the harsh coverage of Dean's appearance. As it happened, Dean raised $93,000 in campaign contributions over the Internet that day - or about $90,000 more than usual on a Sunday, he said.
Preparing for an encounter with Russert - a former top aide to New York politicians Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Mario Cuomo - is like prepping for a two-candidate debate, he said.
"I think Russert's got political instincts to where he's really looking at it from, 'How would I take this guy down if I were the opposition?"' Trippi said.
Slate media writer Jack Shafer recently posted a detailed column, "How to Beat Tim Russert," in which he studied transcripts to offer politicians advice on how to trip Russert up and turn an interview in their favor.
His warning: ignore the amiable Irishman in front of you. "He is not your friend," Shafer wrote. "He wishes your destruction on his show."
Not so, said Russert.
"This is a very serious business," he said. "It's not a game. It's not a search-and-destroy mission."
Before the Internet, Russert said he'd ask politicians to reconcile a position when they said something different earlier. They would often deny saying it. Putting the words on the screen eliminates that dodge.
Russert, executive producer Betsy Fischer and a staff of four people research for each interview on the show, which has aired for nearly 55 years. Newspapers or wire reports from the politician's home state are invaluable, he said. Most of what a candidate is saying on the campaign trail is available.
Now is the time to question these candidates, he said.
When a candidate becomes a party nominee, a protective cocoon is spun and media appearances become much more selective.
"Candidates say they really want to be involved and have the opportunity to talk about the issues in a serious way," he said. "Yet many of them will prefer to stay with a stump speech and commercials and do five or six (interviews) in a friendly environment where they can simply repeat their mantra."
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