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Oddball out: MSNBC's Olbermann plays chicken with Republicans

Alone among all network anchors and commentators of note, Keith Olbermann pontificates far from St. Paul but close to St. Patrick's in his Manhattan fortress of solitude.

It's a stark contrast from the Democratic convention in Denver, where MSNBC's principal Republican attack dog sat on an outdoor set near a train station and rhapsodized about Barack Obama when he wasn't sniping at his colleagues.

A subsequent gossip column in The New York Post quoted network sources as saying that Olbermann had demanded more protection at the GOP convention after anchoring with Chris Matthews on site for the Democrats.

"He thinks someone will assassinate him," an "insider" was quoted as saying. Olbermann reportedly refused to travel to St. Paul if his network didn't provide a "more secure location."

The upshot: Olbermann stayed in MSNBC's 30 Rock studios on Monday night while Hurricane Gustav waylaid the planned speechmaking by Republicans. Many other anchors and reporters -- including standardbearers Charles Gibson, Brian Williams and Katie Couric -- were in New Orleans Monday and then jetted back to St. Paul for Tuesday's first full night of the GOP convention.

But Olbermann resolutely stayed put while his bosses wove a phony cover story for him.

"Keith is particularly strong at being the quarterback for this kind of coverage (namely Hurricane Gustav), and that's why we're pulling him back," NBC News president Steve Capus told Broadcasting & Cable Monday.

That might have held water -- as the levees did -- on Monday. But Olbermann remained in his Manhattan bunker on Tuesday night, twitting the Republicans from afar rather than face them in person.

This cries out for one of those sports analogies he's so fond of spouting. If Olbermann were a star player for the Red Sox, he'd feign an injury rather than travel with his team to Yankee Stadium to play the hated Yankees and their booing fans. This is no standup guy.

Early in Tuesday night's convention coverage, Olbermann threw it to floor reporter Andrea Mitchell, who stood amid the Texas delegation asking, "Where is George Bush?"

Olbermann and some of his MSNBC colleagues made much of the fact that President Bush would be addressing the convention from the White House in an eight-minute speech scheduled to end just before the Big Broadcast networks signed on at 9 p.m. (central). In other words, the convention was washing its hands of a sitting president with a subterranean approval rating.

"They do have airplanes," Mitchell said, referring to the ease with which Bush could have attended in person. This begged the same question for Olbermann, but of course it was never asked. To wit: "They do have airplanes, Keith. Why aren't you here with us? Afraid to take the heat?"

Olbermann's colleagues in St. Paul seemed to be united in their determination to either ignore or disagree with his occasional jabs at Republicans.

"Bigger even than the stump speeches in Wasilla, Alaska," he said in reference to running mate Sarah Palin's scheduled big speech to delegates Wednesday night.

Matthews gave a look of at least slight distaste before batting around the Palin factor with fellow MSNBC panelists in St. Paul.

Olbermann later described former Republican senator Fred Thompson's speech as "nearly entirely militaristic in nature . . . standing him next to a flag and a gun."

"I think it was an effective speech," Matthews demurred.

"It was a terrific speech. It was a barnburner," added conservative analyst Pat Buchanan, who also lauded Barack Obama's acceptance address at last week's Democratic convention.

Olbermann later found fault with Thompson's declaration that "being a POW certainly doesn't qualify anyone to be president." That's a telling "disconnect" in light of presumed nominee John McCain's much-chronicled past, Olbermann contended.

One of MSNBC's commentators noted that Thompson immediately added, "But it does reveal character."

Former Democratic congressman Harold Ford, now a frequently deployed analyst for MSNBC, also spat out Olbermann's bait.

The Republicans had a good night, he said, giving them "an A for effort and B-plus for execution."

It's oddly satisfying, if not exhilarating, to see MSNBC's on-site troops distancing themselves from Olbermann. After all, he's literally distancing himself from them.

It also should be noted that Olbermann's hated Fox News Channel nemesis, Bill O'Reilly, is in town for the Republicans as he was for the Democrats. That gives him a big leg up in their ongoing pissing match. At least O'Reilly had the guts to show his face in both venues.

O'Reilly somehow resisted slamming Olbermann on Tuesday night. But he had bigger fish to fry, crowing at the end of The O'Reilly Factor that he'll be interviewing Obama on Thursday night.

That's a nice notch on his belt. Olbermann can't say as much, and really isn't entitled to say much of anything. Sequestered in Manhattan, his grenades are duds and his braggadocio is bankrupt this week.

Guys who don't have the guts to show up can talk all they want. Meanwhile, everyone else is walking the walk.