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Jan. 7 2008 5:40 PM

The Candidates, Off Guard

Where to find the best campaign coverage on TV.

One Sunday night last September, I spent an hour mesmerized by the sight of Mitt Romney doing very dull things in New Hampshire. The spell was conjured by "Campaign 2008"—C-SPAN's catchall rubric for a stream of election coverage that captures the American political process as does nothing else. The channel's eye is ideally Warholian in its insatiable appetite and peerlessly democratic in its lack of discrimination. Its ear rings with every last hope and frustration of the electorate, with the canned pitches and unguarded pleas of candidates, and, during call-in segments, a panoply of nut-bag ravings. Its tone can be so dry that you might feel a need to spread mayonnaise on your TV screen. But it can switch, in a blink, into an all-you-can-eat buffet of high absurdity.

That night in September found Romney working the town of Littleton, N.H., at a leisurely pace. There he was in a candy store. "This should be a red state, so I'm only going to get red candy," he vowed, plastic bag in hand, scooping up Swedish fish. "You've got these lids on real tight. Is that to preserve freshness?" His total was $11.52, and when it came time to pay, he reached into the leave-a-penny-take-a-penny cup for the two cents. I wondered whether to read the gesture as a proud statement of fiscal prudence or an unwitting signal that he's apt to support socialist schemes.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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Some other C-SPAN fans must be hooked on the channel's broadcasts of stump speeches; such people are driven by a sense of civic duty, perhaps, or a desire to contrive new drinking games. (For instance, those willing to risk acute alcohol poisoning—or, indeed, spontaneous liver failure—might raise a glass every time John Edwards uses the word mill.) But the meat of "Campaign 2008" is in such mundane moments as Romney sidling up to the gummy worms and such baffling displays of personality as Mrs. Romney entertaining the crowd at a New Hampshire retirement home by showing off poster-sized photos of her grandchildren. The real action is to be found on the rope line after a rally, in the small talk of grip-and-grin photo ops, and in the human swarms of what Mark Costello, in the comic novel Big If, called "the food-verb events" of the campaign season—the corn-boils and the weiner-roasts, Tom Harkin's annual steak-fry.

These events and nonevents and glimpses of retail politicking offer endless microrevelations about the psychological bonds between the candidates and the constituents. You see Ron Paul signing autographs after a breakfast in Bedford, N.H., and marvel at his serenity. You notice, after a Clinton rally at an Iowa fire station, the odd sense of protectiveness that ordinary people feel for Chelsea. With some apprehension, you watch Bill Richardson shake hands with a woman who won't stop shaking hands with him, and then you wonder exactly how much Purell these people go through in an average day. The voters' eyes shine with various combinations of patient scrutiny, star-struck arousal, and passionate lunacy. If you don't count Michelle Obama—an ace at greeting long-winded nonsense with understanding nods—Richardson is the campaigner most deft at handling ridiculous queries. Last week, after a gentleman explained to him the potential advantages of moving the United Nations to Puerto Rico, he emitted, chipperly, "Good point!"