CNN journalism watchdog Howard Kurtz posed a key question this weekend as cable news networks prepared to wallow in Tuesday’s New Hampshire presidential primary.
“Is the media,” Kurtz asked his panel on "Reliable Sources," “just trying to keep this race alive?”
What else could explain the spasms of excitement about Republican dark horse Jon Huntsman in recent days?
Huntsman has not unwisely—or so it seems so far—deployed his three attractive daughters (with their own twitter feed) to show up on Wolf Blitzer’s situation room and Martin Bashir’s competing MSNBC show, “Bashir Live.”
(In early results from what Blitzer said was a flood of tweeted requests for dinner dates and more, daughter Mary Anne, having hinted at singlehood, will surely poll highest.)
Pundits have blamed the see-sawing race, with once-scrapped candidates surging towards the front only to drop back, on a failure by frontrunner Mitt Romney to capture the imagination of even his milquetoast base. His attempts to annex some of Ron Paul's growing tribe have led to pronouncements thta have rung a bit hollow.
A perhaps careless statement by Romney this morning that “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me,” referred to health care insurers, but didn't play well with those mindful of his history of involvement in private-sector corporate downsizing, and Huntsman and others were quick to leap on the gaffe.
It does seem, as Kurtz suggests, that the media has been flogging each new un-Romney aspirant with desperate zeal.
A corollary to the near-burial of Newt Gingrich in the days leading up to last week’s Iowa caucus voting was much media hand-wringing over the venom of the PAC-financed attack ads that brought him down.
Mind you, Gingrich, with his petulant and slightly megalomaniac air, has been his own worst enemy, right up through his churlish concession speech in which he was still attempting to whack the opposition. Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan had it about right when she recalled of one outburst in Iowa, “Newt Gingrich, angry little attack muffin, called Mr. Romney a liar.”
He also, not without some justication, accused Romney of spouting "pious baloney". He should know.
We’ve lost some of our more entertaining entrants—Sarah Palin, of course, is long discarded. Also gone, alas, is Michele Bachmann with her quiet but wide-eyed air of frenzy. (“Are you hypnotized?” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews asked her repeatedly when she got stuck on message one day).
Rick Perry has been a blunder -- and another, and another -- waiting to happen since he (as one wag put it) “Threw his hair in the ring,” but he’s now irrelevant. Now the remaining candidate with the most brain-snatched affect is Rick Santorum. Whatever you think of him, he’s got the IQ to match the wealth he’s garnered making inspirational speeches for pay, and he brings the same clinical eloquence to orating for free.
His campaign managers must be gratified that thus far he’s mostly stirred the pot for the far right constituency without really ripping off his mask of civility.
Going into Tuesday, the assumption is that Romney will readily gain a victory when an estimated quarter of a million voters enact the next stage in the slow-motion donnybrook that is Republican electoral politics.
Despite a fair amount of hot breath visibly being expended in the chill New England air by reporters (and anchors) on the ground, most of the journalists seem to be looking forward to warming up in South Carolina and Florida, where the real internecine bludgeoning may take place. Frequently mentioned in the pundits' time-fillers -- and Lord, aren’t we all so sick of those? -- is just how happy the Obama campaign must be to see the Republicans rabbit-punching each other across the lower 48 states.
Meanwhile, hang on to your hats if Gingrich can’t be shaken off Romney’s leg Tuesday. Reminding Gingrich that he was “forced out of the speakership,” Romney warned the attack muffin that he may as well stop whining: “This ain’t bean bag.”
Perhaps not, but the battle in the G.O.P. seems destined to keep resembling a reality show full of pratfalls, slapstick, and angry retorts. And are we -- and the media outlets who have been enjoying some very decent ratings -- not entertained?