For candidates, the campaign trail is like a runaway train, moving in fits and starts, and ultimately powered, they hope, by swift momentum.
But for the off-air embedded network reporters who tag along, many of whom have been covering their respective candidates full time since October, the trail is the ride of their lives, and they must hold on for dear life. The Kids on the Bus, as they are known, eat, sleep and breathe their politicians. They stay in the same hotels. They travel on the candidates' planes. They shadow them through a relentless daily schedule of orchestrated photo-ops and talking-point soliloquies.
The payoff for both White House hopefuls and the “embeds” is all about ratings, and this year, the numbers are climbing with each passing primary in the cycle.
The pace, needless to say, is relentless for the embeds. Boiled down to sheer hours spent shadowing their respective candidates, these are some of the longest commitments many of them, who are in their early 20s and fresh out of journalism school, have ever taken on. Talk about your whirlwind relationships.
In some cases, the vicissitudes of politics can be as cruel as a breakup. Those who found themselves embedded with Mitt Romney thought they would have a long haul as the former Massachusetts governor entered the race as a surprise Republican front-runner. When Romney abruptly dropped out after a disappointing Super Tuesday finish, it shocked many in his young press entourage.
“It was hard to deal with on a personal level because you're going 90 miles an hour all the time and then it's just over,” says Scott Conroy.
As the CBS News embed with the Romney campaign, Conroy, 24, wrote the “From the Road” blog for CBSNews.com. He's now gone back to writing for the Website.
Fox News' Shushannah Walshe, who, at 29, calls herself the “old lady of the embeds,” went from Romney to covering Bill Clinton. Romney was like a vacation by comparison.
“On Romney I probably slept four or five hours a night. Since I started this, I sleep three hours a night and I'm literally not eating because there's no time,” she says.
For those embedded with the former president, the campaign makes no arrangements and reporters must fend for themselves, renting their own cars and booking their own hotel rooms. Also complicating matters are Clinton's Secret Service detail and his handlers, who have apparently taken to heart the lessons learned during the run-up to the South Carolina primary. That's when intemperate remarks from the former president served to alienate some constituencies.
“There's no access,” says Walshe. “They don't want us following every move he makes and catching some off-the-cuff remark. It's impossible to do anything except cover what he says at the events.”
Access to Hillary Clinton, however, is much better with the campaign's continued attempts to soften the former First Lady's sometimes frosty demeanor.
“They really made an effort after Iowa to bring us into the process,” says Aaron Bruns, the Fox News reporter embedded with the Hillary Clinton campaign.
While some episodes are clearly planned to showcase her sense of humor (aping the pre-flight spiel of a flight attendant on her campaign plane comes to mind) Bruns notes moments of authenticity, as when Clinton constantly derides the sorry shape of her plane, a rickety 737.
“She's like, 'This plane sucks.' And it does. We had to change a tire once on the tarmac. The security lights are constantly going off.”
Still, he adds, “I don't think that even we get to see the real Hillary Clinton. You're not really sure whether she's wearing that mask.”
Given the swift ride of the trail, creature comforts count for a lot. Many of the embeds are jealous of their colleagues on the John McCain campaign, not simply for the famous powwows the Arizona senator engages in with his traveling press corps but also because they get to ride on the lushly appointed Straight Talk Express.
“Any question you want to ask the guy you can. And here we are on the bus that smells like urine,” says Bruns, of Hillary Clinton's more pedestrian accommodations.
Members of John Edwards' traveling press corps staged a hunger strike in opposition to the sub-par menu offerings proffered by the campaign. The corps scored a much-heralded victory.
“We had great spreads after that,” says Aaron Lewis, who was embedded with the Edwards campaign for CBS News. “They would set up barbecues and bring in appetizers from TGI Friday's and Ruby Tuesday.”
Carping aside, the embeds agree that the campaign trail has been the best job they have ever had: the sense of camaraderie, the priceless education; the opportunity to be a first-hand witness to history. For those who are no longer on the trail, the end of the road is bittersweet.
“I have been going out recently without my BlackBerry,” sighs Lewis. “It's a process. But I think I'm dealing with the withdrawal pretty well.”