On the campaign trail for every step, misstep

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DES MOINES, Iowa -- Maybe this is heaven after all. Political heaven, at least.

Three months from now, every political and media eye will be here in the Hawkeye State, all trying to divine something meaningful from the results of the Iowa Caucus. The winners might not face off in the November 2008 general election. But Iowa, along with New Hampshire, remains a political junkie's dream.

And if you want to know what it's like in these early-voting states, look no further than the cinema-verite coverage of C-SPAN. Unlike the other nets, C-SPAN has the time and wherewithal to cover the election as it plays out with appearances big and small from the crowded field on both sides. And it's more entertaining and instructive than the Sunday public affairs shows or the old "Crossfire."

Iowa and New Hampshire are the only places where the candidates have to participate in so-called retail politics, the tedious process of obtaining votes, one at a time. C-SPAN has found a niche on TV and the Web in following the candidates as they talk to voters in diners and doughnut shops, union halls and banquet halls.

"We want to show our viewers what it is like for these candidates as they talk to voters, kiss babies, hold babies," says Steve Scully, political editor and senior executive producer at C-SPAN. "We're the only place that will give the viewers and the voters a chance to see what this process is like from soup to nuts."

Listen to the questions, and you'll get the standard-issue ones about Iraq and the economy. But you'll also hear such regional concerns as the impact of budget cuts on New Hampshire's defense industry or, in Iowa, taking a stand on ethanol tax credits.

"It's almost like they're running for mayor or county executive rather than president," says Scully, who has worked for C-SPAN since the early 1990s.

Unlike the heavily produced coverage elsewhere, C-SPAN shows the candidates as they pump hands and talk to voters, make stump speeches and then greet more voters as they head out the door. C-SPAN does this with hand-held cameras and wireless mikes, which often capture the candidate not just what they're like in front of a crowd but what they're like as people.

Scully says some of the best moments happen when the cameras keep rolling after the event.

Sometimes it's not the kind of scrutiny the candidates want. Ever since the George Allen "macaca" moment, campaigns are more aware than ever about the penalty for unfettered access. But C-SPAN has been turned down only twice when asking to cover events so far this election season.

"The one thing I can tell you is the camera doesn't lie," Scully says. "Who you are as a candidate is going to come through."
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