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MR. INSIDE <br> AS THE PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARIES BEGIN, IT'S PRIME TIME FOR A CONSUMMATE WASHINGTON PUNDIT: SOUTH BUFFALO'S TIM RUSSERT, HOST OF 'MEET THE PRESS'

It's almost two hours before show time on one of the most important Sunday mornings of the political season for Tim Russert, host of NBC's "Meet the Press."

He is in his office in the Washington headquarters of NBC News, looking over some last-minute notes before moderating a debate between Democratic presidential hopefuls Bill Bradley and Al Gore.

Noticing that his office clock is off by hours, Russert asks the time. It's 7:20, comes the reply. Resetting the clock, Russert says, "It must have been a power surge."

If anyone knows power surges, it's Tim Russert, 49, the pride of South Buffalo. The journalism watchdog magazine Brill's Content recently proclaimed him the nation's most influential talk show host.

With the Iowa caucuses on Monday and the New Hampshire primary Feb. 1, this is prime time for Russert. And any candidate would die for the kind of approval ratings he receives.

As he arrives at the NBC studio on this December morning, you can see how Russert charms people and audiences.

"You know, Grover Washington (Jr.) is from Buffalo," he tells a member of the crew, Regina Blackburn, whom he affectionately calls "R&B." (Washington died the night before.)

"I knew he was from New York, I didn't know what part," she replies.

"There's only one part, R&B," says the Buffalo booster.

At about 8:25, Bradley and his entourage arrive.

"There she is, the secret weapon," says Russert, before greeting and kissing Ernestine Schlant Bradley, wife of the former New York Knicks player and former New Jersey senator.

"Hi Tim, how are you?" says the candidate himself, rather formally.

The debate -- the first of many this political year hosted by Russert -- goes well, creating news and revealing the testiness between the candidates.

Afterward, Russert is pleased, having asked most of his prepared questions. His detailed preparation included selecting a green tie, a choice made because he accurately predicted the candidates would wear red ones, and he wanted some contrast.

Russert jokes that he has prepared for the debate all his life, which explains his calmness.

"This all began in 1955 at 174 Woodside Ave.," he said. "It was one mile to Holy Family School. No cafeteria. I walked to school and home for lunch. It was four miles a day, sometimes against the wind. That is hard. Everything since has been easy."

Russert, who now has a paper cutout of himself hanging on his office door that was given to him by Holy Family students, is anything but easy on the debaters.

"Tim was tough and fair," said Bradley. "And I think that's why he is as good as he is. He knows substance cold, he knows all the political tricks, and he's able to penetrate to the substance and get beyond the political tricks."

"He's reinvented and reinvigorated 'Meet the Press,' " said Gore campaign adviser Bob Shrum.

The all-important Nielsen ratings back that statement. In the November ratings period, "Meet the Press" had 4.1 million viewers, to 2.8 million for "This Week With Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts" on ABC, and 2.5 million for "Face the Nation" with Bob Schieffer on CBS.

Russert -- who joined NBC in 1984 after working for former New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan -- is viewed as the reason for NBC's success in political talk shows.

"He's very smart, he knows the issues, but he has a personality that comes through on camera," said Shrum.

How powerful is Tim Russert among Washington journalists?

"I think 'Meet the Press' is No. 1, isn't it?" Bradley said.

"In terms of television, there is nobody who compares at this point," said Joe Klein, author of the novel "Primary Colors," who writes about politics for the New Yorker magazine and occasionally appears on "Meet the Press."

"Look at the gyrations that ABC is going through now trying to rebuild their Sunday morning show," Klein said. "Certainly when you look at what politicians choose to be on -- Bill Bradley, first appearance on a Sunday show, 'Meet the Press.' George W. Bush, first appearance, 'Meet the Press.' "

Mary Matalin and James Carville, the married political odd couple who are Russert regulars, never agree when it comes to politics. But they find consensus on Russert.

"He is (No. 1)," said Matalin, a Republican strategist who supports George W. Bush.

"He has now become the kind of gold standard," Carville said. "No one is close. If you can get through a Tim Russert interview, you've been validated."

Except for some sentiment that he can be a bit of a self-promoter, it's hard to find many people who say anything negative about Tim Russert.

However, Danny Schechter, a former producer for ABC's "2 0/2 0" and the recent author of "The More You Watch, the Less You Know," calls Russert "a consummate insider," one who personifies the Washington establishment.

"Russert is very much an in-the-box thinker in the sense that, rather than challenging fundamental viewpoints, he evokes the kind of political discourse we have," Schechter said in a phone interview.

Peter Hart, analyst for the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, said Russert personifies a conventional wisdom in Washington in which the terms of political debate are shaped by the political class.

"Take the so-called Social Security crisis," Hart said. "It's an issue Russert has reported on for years, always from the same narrow inside-the-Beltway perspective. The policy position he argues from is hotly contested outside those boundaries, but not on Russert's show. Likewise, you're not going to see a show on 'Meet the Press' about the Pentagon's budget featuring critics of the military-industrial complex, because that's not on the table among elites in Washington."

Russert took some hits during the impeachment proceedings from some supporters of President Clinton, who felt Russert didn't let the issue go when the public wanted it to disappear.

Carville, the president's biggest defender, admits that he and Russert had some Monday-morning disagreements during the impeachment. But Carville adds: "It was a big story, and I certainly had, as did other people defending the president, access to his show. And we always had a chance to go make our case. That's what you ask for. He's extremely fair. . . . He's going to hit you hard, but he's going to hit you fair. You're going to take a head shot, but you just got to shake it off and come back."

Russert doesn't think he lets his opinions show.

"From Rush Limbaugh to Ted Kennedy, they call me the most objective journalist," he said. "The Clinton administration believed that . . . this was a nonstory, quote-unquote. It was a story. The president of the United States was impeached. The first elected president in history. I cover the news. I've never even shared my feelings about that."

It's fair to say that Russert didn't expect to be in this position. He didn't apply for the job as host of "Meet the Press" a decade ago, when Garrick Utley chose to stay in New York to host the new weekend "Today" show rather than commute to Washington.

Having spent four years as vice president, assistant to the president at NBC News and then senior vice president and Washington bureau chief, Russert was assigned by then-NBC News President Michael Gartner to list possible replacements for Utley.

Russert started as a "Meet the Press" panelist when Utley was host and replaced him in 1991 at the urging of Gartner, who told Russert he should have been on the prospective replacement list.

"I said: 'Michael, I've never had any TV training. I've never done this kind of thing,' " Russert recalled. " 'I don't think it's the way to go.' He said, 'I do.' "

Russert didn't train with voice coaches to be on television.

"I believe TV is a very natural medium. What you see is what you get," he said. "People see right through you, through it. Either they accept it, or they don't. I think viewers respect hard work, preparation, persistence and fairness."

After the Gore-Bradley debate ends, Russert is on his car phone back to Buffalo, getting reviews from his sister, Betty, and his brother-in-law, Bill Buckenroth. His wife, Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth, calls home with praise. And then he gets a fan call from presidential historian Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, who says he has never made such a call before.

Russert's plan to celebrate that night are simple and typical -- heading to a wrestling show with his 14-year-old son, Luke, and trying to get glimpses of the Bills' win in Arizona on ESPN.

But first, there's time for a workout at home on the treadmill. Among the Doug Flutie memorabilia and an autographed photo of Buffalo Bob Smith, a visitor is surprised to see an old card of Bill Bradley in his Knicks days.

"A friend sent it to me after I had Bradley on the first time years ago," Russert explained, ever mindful of looking objective about everything but the Buffalo Bills.

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