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Michigan and Arizona Primaries Coverage: The Romney ‘Abyss’ That Wasn’t

A night when many of the people covering the race kind of wanted Santorum to win

Let's be honest: Rick Santorum supporters — and Democrats — weren't the only ones rooting for a Santorum win in Tuesday's primaries.

Two hours before the polls closed, MSNBC's Chris Matthews sounded like a reporter's reporter at the top of "Hardball." No, not because he played it down the middle: A reporter's reporter roots not for the candidate he or she likes best, but for the candidate who's win would be the best story.

"Tonight we stand watch, again, at the political abyss of Mitt Romney," Matthews said with just a touch of melodrama. "He may win tonight and avoid a devastating fall. But if he loses the fall could be deadly. How does Romney explaining losing Michigan? How does a candidate who outspends a rival two-to-one explain rejection? And how does anyone explain losing to a candidate who makes himself so challenging to root for as Rick Santorum? This may be as big a night as we've had this political season."

It wasn't. And Matthews and other reporter's reporters didn't get their abyss story Tuesday.

MSNBC, CNN, Fox News and Current TV projected a win for Romney in Arizona just moments after polls had closed there. Within an hour and twenty minutes, they had called Michigan for Romney as well. The state was especially important to Romney because he was born there and his father was the state's governor. Losing would have been awfully embarassing.

Though they smelled blood in the water prior to Romney's wins, Tuesday's reporter's reporters knew enough to hedge. Time's Joe Klein said on CNN, before polls closed, that Romney would still face a tough Super Tuesday in Ohio and the South even if he won Michigan.

Super Tuesday is a week away. But several factors conspired to make some reporters believe they might not have to wait that long for a Romney fall. Among them:

-Michigan has an open primary, and Santorum's backers paid for robocalls to Michigan Democrats, asking them to vote for him. Santorum said he was seeking Reagan Democrats.

-Mischief was in the air. Liberal filmmaker Michael Moore, a Michigan native, said his Democratic friends at home were voting for voting for Santorum in what he called "Operation Hilarity." He later tweeted that a friend of his went to vote for Santorum but couldn't stop lauging. 

-The usual series of Romney gaffes as he tries to relate to the common man, this time when he remarked that his wife drives a "couple of Cadillacs." His critics also delighted in pointing out that he had opposed the auto industry bailout that many autoworkers credit with saving their jobs. Santorum opposed it as well, but he noted that at least he opposed all bailouts; Romney, he said, had opposed the auto bailout specifically.

Some Michigan Democrats voted for Santorum in the hopes of extending the Republican nomination fight and weakening the eventual winner. Others saw the socially conservative Santorum as the more beatable general election candidate.

Karl Rove, as he tends to do, spoiled Democrats' fun. Speaking on Fox News, he said soon after polls closed that he had done the math in Michigan and that he expected Romney to win. Even people who hate Rove don't usually take issue with his numbers.

Within an hour of Rove's prediction, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and Current forecast that Romney had indeed pulled out a win.

Until he did, MSNBC's team of mostly unabashed liberals almost salivated at the prospect of a Romney loss. With time to kill as the votes were counted, Al Sharpton again trotted out the story of the time Romney strapped the family dog to the roof of their car. (At least it wasn't "a couple of Cadillacs.")

As the MSNBC airwaves filled with noise, and CNN's screen with meaningless graphics, Current's Jennifer Granholm stood out for her quiet confidence. She happened to be the former governor of Michigan, the state that was the subject of so much speculation. She didn't struggle with the pronounciation of Washtenaw County. But she managed not to lord those facts over anyone.

With a down-to-earth intelligence, she introduced each Michigan-centric guest, from Bloomberg and former Detroit Free-Press reporter Chris Christoff to state Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville. She helpfully explained that he had written the legislation moving up the date of Michigan's primary. They had actual conversations, delightfully devoid of sound bytes.

Current's sparse use of graphics and understated set — as well as the general air of politeness — gave the show a pleasantly Midwestern feel you don't really get from Keith Olbermann's relentless smarm attack on Current.

But the good feelings dissipated as Cenk Uygur took over and provided a kind of DVD commentary over Romney's Michigan speech. He offered a mix of helpful statistics, sometimes funny insults, and tiresome griping. It felt less like commentary than like watching TV with your alternately smart and annoying college roommates. 

Fox News, meanwhile, seemed nearly nonchalant about the primaries, at least compared to the sometimes breathless coverage on MSNBC. Before polls closed, they actually covered — gasp — non-election stories. Shepard Smith took time to talk about the Ohio school shooting, while Bill O'Reilly addressed the other urgent issue of the day: Why it's okay for President Barack Obama to specifically court black voters while white politicians can't do the same with white voters. (Flagrant editorializing warning: Um, many of them do?)

CNN somehow managed to fill the time before polls closed with some actual information: Former financial reporter Erin Burnett noted that GM still owes $23.4 billion to U.S. taxpayers in the auto bailout, but that we won't get it unless GM's stock price doubles.

Speaking of the abyss.

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