"They like to rope-a-dope and he likes to rope-a-dope," Matalin said.
It's a marked change for a White House whose mentality had become "`Make no mistake, admit no mistake - never,' which leaves you no latitude," said Terry Holt, a Republican communications consultant who got to know Snow during his years at Fox, when Holt was a spokesman for Republican lawmakers. "They needed to let the air out of the balloon a little bit, and [Snow is] doing that."
Snow's breezy manner has at times landed him in sticky situations, such as last week's stem-cell miscue. The "idiot" remark came during a public mea culpa after he mistakenly called one African-American congresswoman by the name of another, just weeks after he had drawn fire for using the racially charged phrase "tar baby" on camera in an offhand refusal to comment on the government's telephone-surveillance program. His response to the 2,500th American death in Iraq - "it's a number" - also raised eyebrows among liberals and gave Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, an opening to attack the administration.
Still, Snow sees candor as a strength, which is why, he said, he's working to make the White House more accessible, in part by urging senior White House and administration officials to speak with reporters, and dispatching aides such as Perino to make sure they do.
"If you're showing openness and not delivering, it's going to blow up in your face - you can't just be for show; it's got to be for real," he said.
Because Snow is new, "he questions everything," said Candida Wolff, Bush's top legislative liaison. "There's been more of a willingness to talk, and to push us to open up."
But White House critics, including Democrats and liberal groups, say Snow is no more responsive to the news media than his predecessors, but dispenses spin with more style.
"What he's delivering isn't really that much different than what McClellan and [former press secretary Ari] Fleischer delivered - it's just with a friendlier face," said Paul Waldman of the liberal group Media Matters.
Some reporters complain that Snow caters mostly to large national newspapers and TV networks. "I can't say I have really felt the new openness, but I am ever hopeful," said Julie Mason, White House correspondent for the Houston Chronicle.
Outward signs of Snow's influence have surfaced in recent weeks, with a few senior Bush advisers, such as communications chief Dan Bartlett, top national security aide Stephen J. Hadley, and Wolff showing slightly less reluctance to being quoted by name. Snow also has made himself more available, particularly on his old stomping grounds: TV and radio.
Robert Anthony Snow was born in Berea, Ky., and raised in Cincinnati. High school classmates remember him as an intelligent and easy-going guy who excelled on the debate team and played saxophone in a band called Dual-Headed Drew and the Perky Pistons.
He was fascinated with news and world events at a young age, popping out of his seat during second-grade show-and-tell to recite the contents of the newspaper to his class, he said.
During the civil-rights era, he went through what he calls "my obligatory hippie phase," skipping school to protest the Vietnam War and clashing with his father, a military veteran, though he would soon develop distinctly conservative views.
His ability to laugh at himself set him apart, friends said.
"He wasn't one of those angsty teenagers. He was somebody who was able to see the humor in things and not take himself too seriously," said Dirk Allen, a fellow debater at Princeton High in Cincinnati.
Snow attended Davidson College in North Carolina, where he continued debating, majored in philosophy, and gave roommates headaches teaching himself flute by playing along with Jethro Tull albums. (He would fulfill a dream when he performed on stage with the band's frontman, Ian Anderson, in 2003, and he continues to play with a band of "aging professionals" called Beats Workin'.)
During college, said former roommate and close friend Peyton Marshall, Snow was an unusual blend of playful and intense, "always having fun when he was deepest into something."
These days, there's plenty to keep Snow engrossed. His first alarm clock of the day buzzes at 3:45 a.m., followed by another at 4:15 - to make sure he's awake in time to get from his Alexandria, Va., home to the White House by 6:15 to start a roughly 13-hour day.
Snow manages to escape most weekends to his cottage on Maryland's Eastern Shore with his wife, Jill, three children - girls aged 14 and 9 and a boy, 10 - and two dogs. But even there, in a secluded spot on the Miles River that is purposefully devoid of a TV and answering machine, Snow is a slave to the 24/7 White House news cycle. He recently discovered his BlackBerry and cell phone get excellent reception when he's on his boat, and he's getting ready to install high-speed Internet service in the 100-year- old house.
Much of his time is spent studying the daunting array of topics that come across his desk each day.
"The biggest adjustment right now is just trying to get on top of the volume of policy stuff," Snow said, "You go out there to do a briefing, and you're going to get asked about everything in the world."
Robert Anthony Snow
Birthplace: Berea, Ky.
Education: B.A. in philosophy, Davidson College, 1977; graduate work in philosophy and economics at the University of Chicago, 1978-1979
Family: Wife Jill, two daughters and a son, two dogs
Home: Alexandria, Va., and Easton
Career highlights: White House press secretary, 2006; host of The Tony Snow Show on Fox News radio, 2003-2006; host of Fox News Sunday, 1996-2003; syndicated columnist, the Detroit News, 1993-2001; columnist, USA Today, 1994-2000; White House media affairs aide, 1992-1993; White House speechwriter, 1991-1992; Washington Times editorial page editor, 1987-1991