Texas gov. turns back on newspaper endorsements; criticized for avoiding unscripted questions

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Texas gov: Newspaper endorsements a waste of time

AUSTIN, Texas — Candidates for high political office usually grovel for newspaper endorsements. Not Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Breaking from a decades-old tradition, the governor isn’t even bothering to meet with editorial writers, much less ask for their blessing.

The way Perry sees it, newspapers are old news and have lost much of their influence. In a rapidly changing media climate, Perry said he decided before the March primaries that seeking their endorsements was a waste of time. After winning by 20 percentage points, the governor said he sees no reason to switch strategies in his race against Democrat Bill White.

“The most prized resource that you have is the candidate’s time, and what is the best return on your investment that you can get with a candidate’s time,” Perry told The Associated Press. “It was a calculated decision, but you know the world is really changing, I mean, the way people get their information, who they listen to, etc. Put it all on the balance beam and the balance was toward not doing the editorial boards.”

Newspaper editorialists have responded to Perry’s snub with fury, accusing him of doing a disservice to voters by refusing to submit to unscripted questioning.

The staunchly conservative Tyler Morning Telegraph, which Perry once called his “favorite” paper, slapped the longest-serving Texas governor with a blistering front-page editorial on Sunday.

“Your position to not visit with the editorial boards of Texas newspapers may be astute politically, but it demonstrates a disregard for newspaper readers and voters across the state, who deserve to hear substance rather than silence,” the editorial said.

White — the former Houston mayor who has been endorsed by The Houston Chronicle and the Austin American-Statesman, two of the state’s largest dailies in Democratic-leaning cities — said Tuesday that Perry’s “handlers are afraid of what he’ll say unscripted.”

Perry also drew an unusual rebuke from the National Conference of Editorial Writers, which called him “disingenuous” for saying he didn’t have time to take questions from its members when he spoke to their annual conference last month in Dallas.

“If the governor can’t take questions from the editorial board, from the press, on behalf of the public, it makes you wonder if they’re fit for office,” said Tom Waseleski of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, former president of the conference. “To out and out refuse to meet with editorial boards is cowardly and reprehensible.”

GOP voters are more inclined to view the media as hostile while general election swing voters may be more influenced by newspaper endorsements, said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in Hamden, Conn.

At least one other candidate, Florida GOP gubernatorial nominee Rick Scott, shunned editorial boards in the primary and has yet to schedule any meetings as he faces Democrat Alex Sink.

Brown said that candidates have previously avoided editorial boards during the primaries, but ignoring them entirely throughout an election could represent a new trend in the world of 24-hour news channels and Internet dominance.

“Before the Internet, newspapers in general were a bigger deal and their endorsements mattered more,” he said.

Seeking endorsements from the newspaper boards, made up of opinion writers, columnists and senior editors, is a traditional campaign ritual. It generally is done in a meeting that lasts an hour or more, and it’s not always a walk in the park. Republican political consultant Mark Sanders called it the “second most stressful thing a campaign has to go through,” behind debate preparation.

“You’re meeting with a lot of very smart, opinionated people who are just not going to take any guff off of the candidate,” Sanders said. “You’ve got to be very, very well-prepared to go into an editorial board meeting.”

The intentional snub of the newspapers fits squarely with Perry’s damn-the-torpedoes style. He also has refused to debate White, and he hasn’t hesitated to break from other traditional campaign strategies. For example, Perry doesn’t send out direct mail and he will sell — but not give away — yard signs to supporters.

An independent group funded by an emerging Democratic money man has released a second full-page newspaper ad, capitalizing on Perry’s refusal to debate. The ad demands that Perry “FACE US.” The words appear over a dark, shadowy silhouette of Perry with his head down.

The ad, which appeared Tuesday in 41 Texas newspapers, says “Perry owes Texans the truth” and “It’s time to debate.”

In August, the group Back to Basics political action committee, released a similar ad, calling Perry a coward and claiming he is hiding from his record by refusing to debate or meet with editorial boards.

Associated Press writers April Castro in Austin and Jeff Carlton in Dallas contributed to this report.

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