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Campaigns take pains to stage reality in pursuit of perfect moment

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July 24, 2012: President Obama talks with veterans at the Gateway Breakfast House in Portland, Ore. (AP)

On the presidential campaign trail, nothing is as it seems. 

President Obama pops in at a local diner in Oregon, and chats with a group of veterans who just happen to be sitting there. But wait a minute. The campaign also happens to have their bios at the ready for reporters. 

While Mitt Romney is away in London, business owners gather in 24 locations across the country to bemoan Obama's "you didn't build that" remark. According to the Patriot-News, as the president of a Pennsylvania equipment firm assailed the president's statement, a "lone tear trickled down his right cheek." Perhaps the tear was real -- but the 24 events, with discussion tracking closely with Romney's recent campaign ads, were far from impromptu. 

The practice of contrived political encounters is hardly new. But as the country's most powerful man competes against one of its wealthiest for the support of the 'average Joe,' the campaigns seem to be going to creative lengths this year to stage those almost-candid moments -- those casual encounters that let the candidates remind people that they were normal once too, or that voters feel just like their campaign ads say they do. 

Why do they do it? Blame the media, said George Mason University policy professor Jeremy Mayer. 

"The cost of not being scripted is so high," Mayer said, pointing to the pummeling Romney is taking right now in the British press for suggesting London might not be ready for the Olympics.

"It has to do with the increased scrutiny that campaigns are under," he said. 

But the scripting can also backfire. "The point at which it hurts you is when the public perceives the artificiality," Mayer said. 

One such encounter, scripted by the president's team, caused a bit of controversy earlier this week in the conservative blogosphere. On Tuesday, the president rolled into the Gateway Breakfast House in Portland in between fundraisers, and after working the room pulled up to a booth with three veterans. 

"How's it going guys?" he said, according to the pool report. "I just wanted to come by and say thank you." 

The men hadn't yet ordered any food. The president then chatted with them, beyond earshot of the traveling pool producer. 

The meet-up apparently looked entirely candid. The Oregonian published a photo with a caption that described it as an "unscheduled stop" on the way to fundraisers. Local channel King5 described it the same way. 

But it wasn't entirely unscheduled. The campaign was able to immediately furnish prepared bios on each of the veterans at the booth. One was listed as a volunteer for the Obama campaign. And it turns out the talk was billed as a "roundtable" discussion with veterans -- one that initially looked candid and casual, as evidenced by the local news reports. 

Brad Blakeman, a Republican strategist who's done advance work for Republican campaigns dating back decades, said the scripted events are fine so long as the campaigns are up-front about it. 

"There's truth in advertising, and it's up to the campaign to be truthful, and it's up to the press to inquire," he said. 

As for why the candidates are so concerned with pre-planning so many details, Blakeman said it's just a reality of campaign choreography. 

"Campaigns hate the unknown, so they try and plan and script events and have as much control ... as they can." 

Blakeman said there are plenty of instances where campaigns roll the dice, send an advance team to a location a half-hour ahead of time and then let the candidate show up. He said Mitt Romney, who suffers at times from a stiff image, could actually benefit from going "the extra mile to be as unscripted as possible." 

But, he noted, without the script "bad things happen." 

Recall the raucous town hall meetings between former Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter and an untold number of angry constituents during the health care debate. Or the incident in the 2008 presidential campaign when a woman stood up and told Republican candidate Sen. John McCain she was worried about Obama being "an Arab." 

"No ma'am," McCain assured her. "He's a decent family man citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues." 

Despite rigorous efforts to control town halls and other stops this year, the candidates inevitably leave a certain percentage to chance. Romney had a McCain moment last week in Bowling Green, Ohio, when a woman at a town hall complained about what the "awful economy that Obama's created" has done to her son's business. 

"He may have to close some stores, and it's all because of what this monster has done to this country," she said. 

Romney advised, "That's not a term I would use."