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What's behind Mitt's meltdown

By Howell Raines, Special to CNN
September 18, 2012 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Mitt Romney waves after speaking at a campaign rally in Fairfax, Virginia last week
Mitt Romney waves after speaking at a campaign rally in Fairfax, Virginia last week
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Howell Raines: Politico article showed media feeding frenzy over slipping Romney campaign
  • He says it arrayed evidence of Romney-bashing from normally supportive right-leaning media
  • He says Romney faces a presidential-type decision on his embattled strategist
  • Raines: Real problem is Romney based his run on faulty premise that Obama very vulnerable

Editor's note: Howell Raines is an author and former executive editor of The New York Times. He is working on a novel set during the Civil War.

(CNN) -- For students of journalistic feeding frenzies in presidential politics, the Romney campaign meltdown story merits close study.

The first striking feature is that the flashpoint story that pulled together his missteps -- the bungled foreign trip, his lackluster convention, his widely denounced response to the Libya carnage, to name a few -- appeared in the "new media." The article on his slipping campaign ran on the Politico website under the headline "Inside the campaign: How Mitt Romney stumbled," rather than in mainstream newspapers or on the networks' evening news shows, the traditional pacesetters in campaign coverage. (This was on Sunday, well before his cherry-on-the-top comments about the freeloading 47% hit the headlines on Monday night.)

By Tuesday, as Romney's controversial comments to a roomful of potential funders, recorded in secret, went rocketing around the Web, every follow-up "stumble story" had a fresh headline.

iReport: 'I'm the 47%, but you're wrong, Romney'

The late David Broder, longtime political editor of The Washington Post, was a master at the type of story Politico posted, which doesn't depend on a single scoop but on being able to put the pieces of a mosaic together to see a pattern in a stark way. It is indubitably a sign of the nation's ongoing media power shift that this campaign's watershed story arrived on Politico, which was founded by former Washington Post reporters who couldn't get funding from the mother ship.

Romney camp. defends comments in video
Howell Raines
Howell Raines

Politico's big-picture analysis had all the classic features of a game-changing overview. First there was a series of early warning signs. Since the GOP convention, Romney has been getting blasted by his ought-to-be fellow travelers, notably The Weekly Standard, The Wall Street Journal, and freelance radio right-wingers. Where others have bludgeoned the Republican nominee, Fox News has nibbled, as if to indicate that telling the real, whole news would let too much water through the Titanic-like hole in the USS Romney.

In an energetic follow-up to Politico on his Monday morning show, Joe Scarborough said he was the first high-profile media conservative to announce that Romney is blowing a winnable election and that Limbaugh et al. followed him in defining Romney's damning new persona: a CEO who says American needs a CEO, but who is publicly failing at being CEO of his own billion-dollar campaign.

In the first round of the Romney-bashing stories, it was Stuart Stevens, the campaign's chief strategist/manager/ad director who was being set up as the scapegoat by backstabbing teammates. Stevens' main liability seems to be that he is an affable, quirky risk-taker in the charm-challenged world of GOP political pros. In any event, the risk-averse Romney is faced with the kind of real-time decision that presidential candidates, not to mention presidents, have to face: Will he keep Stevens and be the steadfast CEO who stays the course with an embattled colleague? Or will he dump strategist and strategy alike and emerge as the dexterous CEO with the guts to head off trouble?

Whatever miscues Romney has committed in the media glare, the real problem is that he has based his campaign on faulty premises promoted tirelessly within the conservative echo chamber. To wit:

1. Obama can't win because he is so unpopular.

2. The economy will defeat him.

3. Voters don't want a "socialized" America.

4. American foreign policy is weak.

And so on. There are many ways to state the misperceptions and wishful assumptions that have put the Romney campaign into a decline that could easily turn into disarray. (Perhaps we should place bets on how long before we see the trend-setting "rudderless ship" story. For signs of morbidity, stay tuned to Fox.)

As for Obama being unpopular, the Republicans mistakenly believe that the loud, passionate minority of haters, birthers, and factional zealots like the tea party will convert magically into an electoral majority.

As for the economy, as Time magazine's Joe Klein pointed out on the Scarborough show, the middle class is feeling more secure about employment stability, home ownership and 401(k) trends.

As for "socialism," can Romney avoid a landslide defeat once he succumbs to conservative demands that he "unleash" Paul Ryan as his "explainer"? The more Ryan channels Ayn Rand's John Galt, the more people will value tax equity for the middle class and a sensible safety net for the unfortunate. Ryan's erudite budgetary lectures will alienate people facing such non-Randian, nonintellectual future realities as custodial care for aging parents, hospital bills for major illness, college tuition loans, and medical "vouchers" that don't match health insurance costs for the average retiree.

Here's the picture that is troubling the silenced tribe once known as "mainstream Republicans." Old Reaganites, for example, remember what a winning candidate looks like two months out from Election Day, and they can count. If current trends continue, Obama will look more and more presidential, and Republicans and their preferred news sources will continue to lose faith in the mantra that Obama can't win because he's too black, too liberal and too modern. Interpolating from the polls, only about one-third of the electorate believes that. So from here on out, it's all simple arithmetic, as Bill Clinton said in a convention speech that really was a watershed.

Now, let's get back to the media circus. Maybe we'll see Joe Scarborough pondering how a man confused by Stuart Stevens would have handled Osama bin Laden.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howell Raines.

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