"Did somebody just join us?" the campaign aide asks. The phone line clicks as if it's bugged.
Those of us already "signed on" to this early January tele-conference with Howard Dean try to limit any audible rustling, as new arrivals check in: reporters from the Associated Press, the South Carolina News Network and The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C.
We're gathered at this virtual press conference to hear Dean, the national Democratic frontrunner, discuss the anniversary of George Bush's "No Child Left Behind" education reform act. We've been asked to limit our questions to education issues--especially those playing out in South Carolina.
At first, nobody's quite sure where Dean is. We know he's not in the Palmetto state, where his aides are handling the phones.
"I think he's in the Midwest," says Delacey Skinner, Dean's South Carolina press secretary. "He was in Fargo this morning."
Then, "The governor is in Iowa," comes the definitive word. "Did somebody just join us?"
Finally, after a virtual pause, Dean's voice comes over the line in a jovial burst: "Hi. This is Howard Dean. How are you?"
He launches quickly into a critique of the No Child law, calling it "a very great problem for schools across this country." It's a problem because the "standards for teachers don't make any sense," Dean says, and "the money is far less than the mandate." In a few short years, he notes, no public schools in the country will be able to meet the bill's performance standards, which are tied to funding.
Bottom line: "It's not a bill that's supportive of public education." Nor is it particularly supportive of standards. Dean points out that at least two states--Michigan and Ohio--have actually reduced standards in order to comply with the No Child law and avoid losing money.
"I do believe in standards," he adds. "But we ought to be adding resources to schools, not taking them away."
An editor from a paper in Rock Hill, S.C., asks whether the authors of the No Child bill wrote the law with the intention of discrediting public schools.
"Given the quality of people in the White House, that could be true," Dean says, before the rest of us can draw breath. "It's certainly not a public school-friendly bill."
After 12 minutes, the tele-conference is over. Stragglers can talk to Professor Christopher Edley Jr., who's on the line to handle any follow-up questions. Edley, a Dean supporter who teaches at Harvard Law School, rolls out some numbers on how South Carolina has done under the No Child law: 95 percent of high schools have failed the standards, he says, and more than 75 percent of middle schools have failed.
"So what standards does Howard Dean want to see instead?" I ask.
"In the spring he'll be rolling out his detailed recommendations for what No Child Left Behind should be replaced with," Edley replies.
Another reporter is in the midst of asking for Edley's number when the tele-conference is terminated.
"The moderator has disconnected," says a recorded voice.