New Hampshire Magazine Interviews Carl Cameron

Behind those shades, Carl Cameron’s boyish face is familiar to the world from his work as a political reporter and White House correspondent for FOX News and as a former reporter for WMUR-TV Ch. 9. Cameron and the rest of his crew will be rolling into town for the FOX News-sponsored GOP Presidential Debate on September 5. The debate will be broadcast live on FOX News TV and radio beginning at 9 p.m. from the UNH Whittemore Center.

So how is this Primary season shaping up?

We’ve seen for the first time ever a serious candidate announce a full two years ahead of the election. It’s unheard of in American politics. He’s already dropped out. There will be a lot of change in the weeks ahead. New Hampshire voters don’t make up their minds until the last two weeks.

So this campaign is different?

It’s different in that the candidates are doing a lot more campaigning in states that used to be fundraising stops. In Iowa and New Hampshire and North Carolina the voters have questions already. There are not a lot of questions being asked in Florida and California or at least not the level of informed scrutiny that you get in N.H.

At this point, national polls don’t matter as much as the polls in Iowa and N.H. There’s still a degree of fluidity. On the democratic side, it looks like Hillary has got a pretty solid and steady 6-12 point lead. Obama is still trying to figure out the mystery of turning grassroots buzz into votes. Howard Dean was able to turn it into fundraising, but the votes weren’t there. Hillary’s lead has withstood some scrutiny and some bad moments. She continues to lead with African American voters and women in many national polls. Most interestingly, the number of people who say they will never vote for her is shrinking. The charm offensive she has been staging is the great unreported story of this campaign.

In all your years following candidates around, what’s the best thing and the worst thing you’ve experienced on the campaign trail?

One of the best and worst moments was in 1996 when I was moderating the Republican presidential debates on national TV when the lights went out.

That was a best?

We handled it OK and for the first time I really understood what it was to be in the national spotlight. And I didn’t drool all over myself.

You get accused of having a conservative bias, as does Fox News. Is that a fair and balanced appraisal?

I am a libertarian in the New Hampshire sense of the word. I’m registered as an independent. I’ve voted for Republicans and Democrats over the years and I treat every politician as subject matter. It’s a little impersonal, but what serves me best is something I learned when working on the radio in Manchester on WFEA. It was the beginning of my career and I was up at four in the morning doing radio reports. I was going to cover a house fire and my boss told me, look, it’s not a good fire or a bad fire. Just tell us how high the flames went. That’s how I cover politicians.

People who know me from before I got into media or who know me from Ch. 9 or WFEA know I’m not an ideological person. What I strive to do at Fox is put the ball on the 50 yard line and right or left, they can run with it. I come from a very liberal family. My mom has been involved in the league of Women Voters and my dad is an Ivy League professor. There are times when my employment at Fox makes their skin crawl.

TV political coverage seems to be taking a lot of hits lately. Is it up to the challenge?

The problem with TV politics is the limited amount of time we have, particularly with six plus candidates on both sides, there’s no way we can do a comprehensive story in two minutes. I try to draw in the audience with high impact reports. I put the crash at the beginning of the race so people will watch. Give them political combat up front, rather than policy substance. Give them the horse race and some name calling and then at the end we can make them eat some of the spinach of policy.

What ever happened to the Carl Cam? [In some previous campaigns, Cameron brought his small camcorder behind the scenes to video candidates as ease or in informal settings.] Any thought of reviving it?

As a matter of fact, it came out of mothballs this weekend. I wasn’t using it, my two sons were. My kids were on the trail with me at a Romney event. They got shots of that and some of McCain clowning around and hanging out with Bill Clinton at the rope line. So the Carl Cam will be back in earnest and we may begin with some adolescent input — not mine, though I get accused of that.

The immediacy of your backroom videography was a bit of a precursor to today’s blogging and YouTube vids. Do you blog?

I do blog. I’m just getting started so be gentle. Its super duper inside stuff only the biggest junkies would care about but filled with breadcrumbs that will tell you where things are going

Looking around online, you seem to be one correspondent that bloggers love to hate.

I think that if you Google search other correspondents, you’ll find that they all tend to be the targets of bloggers on the left and on the right. They can expound on their theories without the limits that I would have. I’ve made a mistake or two, but in the aggregate I’d stand my reporting up against anyone. I still have conservatives ticked off at me for story on George Bush’s DUI. They don’t forget.

So what’s the deal with the Sept. debates?

It’s still unclear. The Democrats’ decision to boycott is a travesty. It’s also a bit hypocritical. They have already participated in debates sponsored by the Union Leader. Those people are friends of mine, but they are certainly known as a conservative paper and that did not affect their decisions. This was not a decision that originated with the candidates. It was a movement by left wing bloggers that got currency within the Nevada Democratic committee and then Harry Reid blinked. The dirty little secret is that the Democratic candidates really find the left wing bloggers to be irritating.

What lessons learned in N.H. have served you well with Fox News?

Everything. I don’t diminish the importance of the experience I’ve gotten in Washington DC, but in N.H. I learned that nothing is more important than the voters. I’ve learned to say to hell with campaign staffers. They are bit players. When the staff of a national candidate tries to tell us where we need to go and stand as opposed to standing with the voters, I simply won’t stand for it. The N.H. primary is about freedom of access between candidate and voter. Candidates who think they are more important don’t understand what N.H. and Iowa are about. My reporting opinion takes a back seat to opinions and perceptions of voters. It’s a truism, but if voters say 2 plus 2 is not equal to 4, then any candidate who tries to correct their math will pay dearly. That’s the nature of the first in the nation primary. That’s what I learned in N.H. I used to think that DC was more politically astute than N.H, but the difference is that DC people are all on the political dime, whereas in N.H they are the citizenry.

Every single day I remind some presidential candidate that I’m from N.H. and it tells them something of what I’m about.

It changes the way they treat you?

Absolutely. Presidential candidates of all stripes have asked me for advice about N.H, where they should go, who they should talk to, if they go to Chez Vachon on the West Side, will they get beaten up for going into a democratic stronghold. Ninety nine out of 100 times I say, I’m not in the advice business, but I can usually quote them some historical reference and let them know what their predecessors have tried and how it worked out.

I will defend my objectivity to the last breath on all but one issue. On this I am a fully disclosed partisan and chauvinist. The N.H. first in the nation primary is in the country’s best interest. I’ve watched and in all the states that vote in this lengthy continuum, the layers of the onion have been peeled back most effectively in N.H. In NH we knew that George W. Bush was not interested in New Hampshire very much and there was skepticism toward him. We knew that Bill Clinton had issues. The rest of the country seemed surprised, but we knew who he was and this has been the case with every other candidate back through history. We know the candidates like no other state. John Sununu said it best. Iowa picks corn, N.H. picks candidates.

Is your Bush press corps nickname actually Camarones?

It evolved over the years. Initially it was Carlito. At some point that changed to Carlos, then he settled for Camarones, which is Spanish for shrimp. I don’t know if that’s a slam or not.

You seem to have retained a sense of humor.

Politics have to be taken seriously but reporters shouldn’t take themselves seriously.

Carl Cameron’s blog: