'Today' show in Tampa: a swing state snapshot
TAMPA -- He walks briskly, like someone headed to an important appointment, an old knee injury making his gait a little wobbly.
But Today show host Al Roker can't walk far from the show's set on the University of Tampa this morning without stopping. First, a fan wants him to hold up his dog for a picture, but Roker's allergies make that impossible. Next, a smiling fan wants him to sign her sign, a handmade job criticizing GOP candidate John McCain. A few steps later, he's posing with staff from the University of Tampa and flashing a thumbs up to two fraternity guys shouting his name.
All this to reach a drink of water in a waiting room just 50 yards from the cameras. Doesn't it ever get tiring?
"Look, my dad drove a bus for eight hours a day for most of my childhood in New York City," said Roker, once he had finally plopped into a folding chair in a room at the University of Tampa's Plant Hall. "That's hard work. Here people want to take your picture, they want an autograph, that's not the worst thing in the world ... Everybody likes to complain, but my mom once asked, 'What's this job where you get to do things everybody wants to do and go places everybody wants to go?' We're blessed."
Roker and co-host Matt Lauer brought about 1,200 people to the center of the college's campus by about 8 a.m. -- some who had stood around since 3 a.m. for the privilege. By 9 a.m., many of the onlookers had already left, presumably to get to work or classes. But the show's apex drew a powerful mix of advocates for political candidates, fans of the show and curious onlookers hoping for 15 minutes of fame.
At the center of it all stood Roker and Lauer, balancing live shots for the program with their work as ambassadors for the show and network -- filming quick promotional ads with anchors from WFLA-Ch. 8. (Both Lauer and WFLA morning anchor Bill Ratliff, shown here with WFLA's Gayle Guyardo, had trouble controlling their perspiration, even in early morning.)
Lauer, who started the program at 7 a.m. in a tan suit and tie, only to get down to an open-necked shirt an hour later, said the biggest challenge of the day was an appearance by Gov. Charlie Crist, who showed up just 30 seconds before his interview was to start on Plant Hall's patio.
"That makes a few more hairs fall out of my head," said Lauer, patting at his thinning, graying mane. "But this is a piece of cake, compared to some of the other things we've done -- the Olympics, or my 'Where in the World (Is Matt Lauer)' travels. You take the Today show on the road, and you want to feel that energy -- feel what getting out of the studio does for you. There are time when you can enjoy the crowd, play with the moment, and other times when you focus on the job."
Today, focusing on the job meant pulling off an interview by satellite with Sen. Hillary Clinton, who made herself available at the last minute, and hadn't appeared on the Today show since dropping out of the Democratic primary months ago. It also meant navigating a wide sea of supporters who followed him like an undulating tide, jockeying for position in front of the cameras and begging for just one more picture or autograph.
"The time slot generates a different feeling for viewers," Lauer explained. "They wake up with us. We're one of the first things they see in the morning. I can't count the number of people over 15 years who have said 'I feel like you live in our house -- you're part of the family.' And I gotta say, I love that part of the job."
But can you really get a feel for a swing state like Florida -- the ostensible purpose for bringing the show to Tampa in the first place -- by popping in for a dinner at Bern's Steak House and standing for three hours in front of a fountain at the center of a college campus?
"You don't learn from today's broadcast, you learn from the homework you do leading up to today's broadcast," said Lauer, citing the polls of Florida conducted by NBC's political director Chuck Todd and the advance research done by the show's producers. "That's where you learn the most about the issues and, hopefully, communicate that to people across the country."