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Face it, Romney is way out in front

By Jennifer Lawless, Special to CNN
updated 6:11 AM EST, Wed January 11, 2012
Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney addresses a primary night victory rally in Manchester, New Hampshire
Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney addresses a primary night victory rally in Manchester, New Hampshire
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jennifer Lawless says Romney may have won, but media still reluctant to anoint him
  • She says it pushes story that voters cool to him as nominee, even though that's changing
  • She says media focus instead on candidates who may yet upset his front-runner spot
  • Lawless: Media should reflect reality-- that voters appear to be getting behind Romney

Editor's note: Jennifer L. Lawless is associate professor of government at American University. She is co-author, with Richard L. Fox, of "It Still Takes A Candidate: Why Women Don't Run for Office" (Cambridge University Press 2010). She ran in the 2006 Democratic primary for the U.S. House of Representatives in Rhode Island's 2nd Congressional District.

(CNN) -- Mitt Romney can't catch a break, unless it comes with an unenthusiastic sigh.

He won the Iowa caucuses last week. But not really, the media remind us. After all, his margin of victory was only eight votes, a contest Romney and Rick Santorum "fought to a draw," announced The New York Times. "A virtual tie," said the Washington Post headline. And although the Wall Street Journal acknowledged Romney's victory, the paper noted that it was only by the "slimmest of margins."

To be sure, an eight-vote margin of victory is a squeaker. So, I understand the media, pollsters' and pundits' reluctance to anoint Mitt Romney the Republican Party's nominee on the results of Iowa alone.

Tuesday night, however, Romney pummeled his opponents in New Hampshire. Although the talking heads seemed to come to terms with the fact that Romney's decisive win has set him on the path to nomination, they credited his success to anything but voter enthusiasm for his candidacy.

Jennifer Lawless
Jennifer Lawless

Instead we got: He served as governor of a neighboring state. He owns a lake house in New Hampshire. Candidates from Massachusetts always perform well in New Hampshire's primary. New Hampshire's median income is roughly 50% higher than the national average. The state is an outlier with an idiosyncratic Republican electorate. The outcome, in other words, was a meaningless, foregone conclusion.

Far more interesting was the runner-up slot. "New Hampshire is all about winning -- second place that is," read a CNN.com headline throughout much of Tuesday. Wolf Blitzer referred to the "intense fight under way to be Romney's main challenger." MSNBC wrote that a disappointing finish by Jon Huntsman, one that came to pass with his third place position, could be "crippling for his White House hopes."

Gergen: Romney's N.H. speech memorable
Romney: 'Tonight we made history'
Tim Pawlenty on Romney's competition

And when they were not talking about Ron Paul and Huntsman, the media touted the (now incredibly small) possibility of Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich wresting Romney's front-runner status from him. From the media's perspective, the story worth telling was any one that involved a possible Romney defeat in next week's South Carolina primary, no matter how unlikely that scenario.

Public opinion polls over the last year have made it clear that Republican voters are not crazy about Mitt Romney. But Romney is now up in the polls in South Carolina. He's uniquely situated financially to compete in the multimedia market state of Florida. The most recent Gallup Poll finds that nearly 60% of both conservative and moderate Republicans consider Romney "acceptable" as a nominee. And the results of a new CBS News poll find Romney the only Republican candidate to win a hypothetical head-to-head against Barack Obama.

By no means do I argue that we should anoint Romney as the GOP nominee before all votes are counted. By no stretch of the imagination do I suggest that the race is over and that there is no opportunity for a surprising upset in some states down the road. In fact, as a liberal Democrat, I have no interest in seeing the Republicans choose their nominee in anything less than a lengthy bloodbath.

But as a political scientist, and as someone genuinely concerned with the consequences of the 24-hour news cycle, I am struck and disappointed by the disconnect between what the voters have said and how the media have covered their sentiments. The reality is that as GOP voters begin to cast their ballots, Mitt Romney is gaining momentum and accruing victories. Republican women and men, it seems, are beginning to believe that Romney might be their best shot at taking back the White House. It's time for the media to tell that story a little less reluctantly. The voters deserve it, and Mitt Romney has earned it.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jennifer Lawless.

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