Primary Color

In Walter Shapiro’s One-Car Caravan, the USA Today political columnist shadows the 2004 Democratic presidential candidates on the campaign trail before America starts following them.

Why write a book about the early days of the primary?
Because that is the fun time. You can see candidates unscripted. I was there for the first time in the annals of recorded politics when a candidate offered a reporter matzo. Lieberman got back to the trail after Passover with his mother, and it was in a package, probably with a note that said, “Joey, eat this, you look thin.”

You respect the candidates, but would you hang out at the beach with any of them?
Kerry is the candidate I’d most like to go out for a beer with. I find him complicated and bright, and he has a depressed interior he’s trying to cover with good cheer. Al Sharpton arouses horrible contradictions: I know his loathsome record in logrolling, yet I found myself charmed when we were in a car searching for the best soul-food restaurant in Columbia, South Carolina.

What’s the worst part of being a presidential candidate?
Having to watch what you say. Having to parse every sentence you utter in advance and think, What if this is taken out of context? A one-sentence answer from Howard Dean to a question he’d answered before led to the Confederate-flag flap. He lost a week of the campaign. And when they’re expected to talk six to eight hours a day, that’s how you create robocandidate.

How does the contempt the candidates feel for Bush change the campaign?
Their contempt, coupled with the pitchfork-wielding anger of the Democratic activists toward Bush, means there’s a danger of becoming too shrill, preaching to the choir. You want a candidate that’s medium hot, not red hot.

You didn’t put an index in the first printing, so colleagues couldn’t tell if they weren’t in it. Has your name ever been left out of an index?
More times than I would like to admit.

Primary Color