Embed Rest

During a radio show on which I appeared Friday, a caller said he was upset that ABC News had decided to stop assigning embedded reporters to the presidential campaigns of Carol Moseley Braun, Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton. My question is: Why?

I understand that it's important to hear from all nine presidential candidates so that voters can make informed decisions before next month's Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. But Braun, Kucinich and Sharpton have been little more than entertaining sidekicks in the campaign so far and haven't proved themselves worthy of significant press attention.

Each of these three candidates has had his or her moment in the media spotlight. Braun's campaign made news this summer when the National Organization for Women (NOW) endorsed her, prompting The New York Times editorial page to note that NOW's move was little more than a symbolic gesture for a candidate on a "personal quest" to restore her reputation and "return to the limelight." Sharpton won headlines when he hosted Saturday Night Live earlier this month. Meanwhile, the twice-divorced Kucinich has been the subject of numerous press reports about his quest to find a new wife.

All of these episodes have made for interesting campaign fodder, especially considering how dull some of the other contenders -- such as Dick Gephardt and Joe Lieberman -- are. But notice that these stories don't have anything really to do with the trio's candidacies. Braun's big news wasn't about her so much as it was about a controversial call by a feminist group. And the Sharpton and Kucinich stories are more worthy of ABC's entertainment division than its news operation. (Kucinich's well-publicized date last week with a woman who was chosen from a pool of 79 contestants by the Web site PoliticsNH.com had all the trappings of a reality show. Who Wants to Marry a Failed Presidential Candidate? cannot be far behind.)

All three candidates continue to fare poorly in head-to-head match-ups with President Bush. A Quinnipiac University poll earlier this month showed Braun with 33 percent of the vote (versus 56 percent for Bush), Kucinich with 32 percent (compared to 55 percent for Bush) and Sharpton with 29 percent (with Bush at 59 percent). By comparison, Howard Dean had 40 percent to Bush's 51 percent.

And none has raised enough money to mount a successful challenge to Dean and other leading candidates in the primary -- let alone Bush next November.

The three also have failed to make their campaigns about anything bigger than themselves. Braun has tried to make her campaign about putting a woman in the White House, but she still hasn't turned into the nation's first credible female presidential candidate. Sharpton has reached out to black voters, but a number of leading black politicians -- such as Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) -- have endorsed other candidates because they believe Sharpton can't win. Kucinich may have raised the profile of vegans slightly, but his dovish stance on Iraq was overshadowed early on by Dean.

Resources at news divisions these days are tight. There are a limited number of minutes on a nightly newscast to devote to presidential candidates. True, ABC's The Note includes regular updates from its embedded reporters. But the site -- widely read by political junkies -- doesn't reach the millions of viewers that Peter Jennings does. When the Braun, Sharpton and Kucinich campaigns do make news, ABC can still dispatch a reporter to cover them. But it's hard to justify paying a reporter to cover a candidate night and day when the candidate makes real news only once in a blue moon.

As David Broder noted last week in The Washington Post, a recent Pew poll found Dean, Gephardt, Lieberman and Wesley Clark all within the margin of error, "with none having more than 15 percent support." It's unlikely that Braun, Kucinich or Sharpton will suddenly vault into this tier of frontrunners. If that happens, ABC should reinstate the embedded reporters without hesitation.

But for the time being, the bulk of the media coverage should go to those candidates who have shown they're connecting with voters and who could pose a credible threat to President Bush's chances of reelection. Unfortunately for Braun, Kucinich and Sharpton, that group doesn't include them.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill.