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Mitt Romney’s Toughest Crowd… Fox News?

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In this week’s print TIME, Joe Klein has a cover story on Mitt Romney’s inability to close the deal with Republican primary voters. For months, the polling trendline has looked like this: Romney has been cruising flat on the moving sidewalk of his campaign, while watching Rick Perry, then Herman Cain, and now Newt Gingrich rise past him on the escalator of the GOP base’s affections. And there has been no greater symbol of his problem this week than his rough treatment on, of all places, Republican home-away-from-home Fox News.

Romney got the wrong kind of publicity earlier this week when he went snitty during a challenging interview with Bret Baier, who pressed him for explanations of his past wishy-washiness on policy. (Alleged wishy-washiness! No, really, just wishy-washiness.) And speaking to Bill O’Reilly last night (above), Baier said that Romney’s testiness continued after the cameras stopped rolling, with the candidate complaining to the interviewer that his tough questions were “uncalled for.”

For a while, I’ve been following a curious phenomenon in primary coverage: the political press routinely treats Romney as the frontrunner, or even the presumed nominee, without tangible evidence that he can actually get more Republicans to want him to be the President than any of his opponents can. Through a combination of the Beltway press’ respect for Romney’s logistical and financial advantages, and their tangible disdain for all the alternatives, we’ve has a weird situation where the “leader” in the GOP race is a guy who has trailed in most national and early-state polls for the last several months. (NBC’s Chuck Todd added a new wrinkle on this, advancing the idea that Romney is not the “frontrunner” yet still the “favorite.”)

This veneer of inevitability—the assumption that, basically, voters may say they’ll vote for Romney’s opponents but they don’t really know their own minds—has been one of his campaign’s greatest assets. Except on Fox News—Romney certainly has his defenders there, but Fox has been full of commentators willing, oddly, to cast doubt on the GOP establishment choice.

Or not so oddly. Fox News, after all, has branded itself during the Obama years not just as the network of conservative commentary but the network of a specific kind of conservatism—Tea Party, highly caffeinated. So where much of the Beltway press has found it almost impossible to imagine GOP voters choosing otherwise—surely he’s the sensible, electable choice!—Fox has been much more willing to give credence and voice to his base-pleasing opponents. (After all, the network employed Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum until they left to run for President.) The progressive press-watching group Media Matters has kept tabs on this phenomenon, which it dubs “The Fox Primary.”

Of course, there’s another reason that a bad interview for Romney on Fox would be magnified: he hasn’t been doing many one-on-one TV interviews with anyone else. While his opponents have grabbed all the free media they can get (even Herman Cain during his sex-charge troubles), Romney has been MIA on the Sunday morning news shows. (Including, to be fair, Fox’s.)

If Romney keeps losing ground to Gingrich, he may need to make himself more available to try to change the narrative and turn things around. In which case, to the sights of a weird primary season, we can add this: a major Republican candidate turning to the mainstream media to recover from looking bad on Fox News.

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