Newsies scramble on Iowa caucus

Differentiation difficult amid close race

With the Iowa caucus set to begin Tuesday, the broadcast nets and news cablers have been scrambling to cover a campaign that has no clear front-runner and has seen multiple dark-horse candidates surging in the polls.

For newsies, the race has become a challenging one: Which candidates should they cover, and when?

Rarely has the race for the GOP nomination been so hotly contested, and rarely have the candidates attracted so many disparate followings of roughly the same size.

As of Monday, former Massachussetts Gov. Mitt Romney was leading some polls by just one or two points, with Texan Ron Paul in a close second place and social conservative Rick Santorum unexpectedly surging.

Santorum’s ascendance was just the latest in a series of reversals.

In the fall, “Saturday Night Live” ran not just one but several fake debates in which Newt Gingrich (played by Bobby Moynihan) admitted he didn’t want to be president and left early.

Tension between Republicans has marked the campaign season thus far, and networks are playing up the back-and-forth.

Five-term Iowa Rep. Steve King, whose endorsement is considered crucial for GOP hopefuls, said he wouldn’t endorse a candidate but told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Monday that Paul’s proposal to bring home all troops is “a colossal mistake.”CNN’s coordination of coverage has been a marathon task, said the cable news net’s political director, Sam Feist.

“We brought in 34 events today and we put them on television live,” Feist told Variety on Monday. “Sometimes it got a little tricky because we had three events going on at the same time — a Romney, a Gingrich, and a Santorum — and we had to switch back and forth between them.”

MSNBC is keeping its pundits at the forefront during the early going, with Al Sharpton sounding off on Santorum’s statement that he doesn’t “want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money” and Chris Wallace calling a potential Romney win “a victory of stealth over openness.”

The close race seems to have political reporters energized. (“I’d much prefer going into it not knowing who’s going to win,” Feist said.)

CNN has cast its net as widely as possible, while Fox News is focusing on the Romney, Gingrich, Perry and Santorum campaigns.

FNC anchor Wallace said last month that if Paul were to win, “it will discredit the Iowa caucuses” because the rest of the Republican establishment doesn’t take him seriously.

Feist declined to handicap the election, but said, “If you finish fifth or sixth in Iowa, there’ll be a lot of pressure to drop out. Nobody’s ever come in fifth or sixth and gone on to win the whole thing.”

CNN, Feist said, would be ready to zero in on fewer front-runners by the end of the month.

“By the evening of Jan. 21, there are not going to be seven candidates in this race,” Feist said. “And I’m not making a particularly bold prediction.”