Iowa's over and New Hampshire looms. Both are crucial for the presidential prospects of GOP candidates, but the state of the news media may matter more than the vote totals. More than ever, the press has become part of the election story. With the emphasis on horse-race coverage, seven sequential alternatives to front-runner Mitt Romney have emerged, with each experiencing events reflecting the increasingly blurred lines between media, pop culture and politics.
First up was Donald Trump, whose dalliance foreshadowed the reality show this campaign has often appeared to be. But after parlaying his fame into continual coverage, the billionaire birther was, well, trumped by President Obama producing his birth certificate and announcing the death of Osama bin Laden.
Trump, the host of "Celebrity Apprentice," resurfaced later as a potential debate moderator. But in a rare respite from the degradation of our democratic process, the debate never happened. Those debates that did, however, became huge hits on cable, and have been the defining dynamic driving the 2012 race.
Michele Bachmann, for instance, had a strong performance and confirmed her candidacy in the first debate, which prompted applause even from rival candidates. But a postdebate controversy over vaccinations led commentators (and comics) to needle Bachmann, who initially became nationally known because of cable news. Bachmann wasn't alone on-air. At one point, Fox News employed four presidential prospects. Two, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, declared, and two, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, declined, choosing hot studio lights over cold campaign rallies in Des Moines. (Trump was later added as a Fox contributor.)
Bachmann won the Iowa Straw Poll, which proved meaningless after Rick Perry threw his 10-gallon hat in the ring on the same day and shot to the top.
Unfortunately for Perry, presidential politics goes beyond announcements. Enunciating a coherent message during debates matters, too.
Perry's performance plunged him from front-runner status. Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain, conversely, were elevated by the debates. But their turns as the anti-Romney were brief, too, as their pasts caught up with them.
Cain blamed the news media, saying as he suspended his campaign: "These false and unproved allegations continue to be spinned in the media, and in the court of public opinion, so as to create a cloud of doubt over me and this campaign and my family."
Cain conveniently ignored the fact that he himself was part of, and was elevated by, the media: He hosted a talk-radio show, published a book and was such a ubiquitous cable news presence that he boasted that "right now my name ID is probably 99.9 percent."
As was Gingrich's. But he was undone by another major media factor: Unlimited spending unleashed by the Supreme Court's "Citizens United" ruling. Negative ads -- called "contrast ads" by those running them -- from so-called "super PACs" backing Romney reminded voters about Gingrich's political and personal "baggage." In a seething speech Tuesday night, Gingrich singled out Romney and started a counterattack.
But Gingrich, too, has had a media memory lapse. Back in 1990 he was apparently more comfortable with confrontational tactics, suggesting in a memo that Democrats be defined with one of 64 "contrasting words" like "corrupt, radical, disgrace, shame and traitor."
Enter Ron Paul. Who, of course, was always there, but was mostly missing from election stories, according to the Pew Research Center, which calculated that as recently as late August he was 10th in overall campaign coverage.
Paul may miss the anonymity now that he's facing the media glare. Early 1990s newsletters published by Paul had anti-Israel, antigay and racist references. While Paul is not accused of writing the items and has disavowed them, the controversy resurfaced just as he surfaced near the top of Iowa polls.
So, suddenly, Santorum was the last man standing. His scant coverage had often focused on his "Google problem." (I'd say "Google it," but that would compound the issue, which is that when "Santorum" is entered into the influential Internet search engine the first result is a crude sexual reference named after him because of his stance on same-sex relationships.) Unable to shed the media millstone, he can only hope it helps prove to social-values voters that he's a target because he's been leading their fight.
And there's still Jon Huntsman, who despite being the media pundits' pick still hasn't had his turn on top.
There are 49 states left to go. Stay tuned, or you might miss the next hottest candidate.
The Rash Report can be heard at 7:50 a.m. weekdays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. Follow John Rash on Twitter: @rashreport.