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On-message with social media? Good luck with that

By Jim Acosta, CNN National Political Correspondent
updated 6:54 PM EST, Sat March 3, 2012
Since Mitt Romney jumped into the presidential race, he has kept his traveling press corps at arm's length.
Since Mitt Romney jumped into the presidential race, he has kept his traveling press corps at arm's length.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mitt Romney's nonresponse on the Limbaugh furor gained momentum on Twitter
  • Left-leaning blogs picked it up, and hours later, Romney commented
  • Rick Santorum is the polar opposite of Romney in his relations with media

Cincinnati (CNN) -- Mitt Romney had a mutiny on his hands. Not with his staff but with his embeds.

The hardworking, 20- and 30-something off-camera network news reporters who chronicle Romney's every public utterance had decided on a plan: They would band together and confront the candidate working the rope line, mini-cams in hand, with the hopes of forcing Romney to comment on the Rush Limbaugh controversy.

Limbaugh had called a woman who testified on the importance of birth control coverage a "slut."

Not surprisingly, outside of Seattle on Friday, Romney declined to answer a question from CNN about Limbaugh's insult.

Romney rarely answers questions from the embeds and reporters who try to catch him on the rope line. He can hear them but simply ignores them.

The Romney embeds are quite used to this. Since the former Massachusetts governor jumped into the GOP race, he has kept his traveling press corps at arm's length.

Even though their news organizations pay roughly $1,000 an hour to have these reporters fly aboard Romney's press charter for the sole purpose of round-the-clock coverage of the candidate, the embeds have limited access to him.

In the last month, he has held just one "media avail," jargon for a brief news conference. Romney prefers his Fox News Channel comfort zone, appearing on the conservative-leaning cable news channel sometimes several times a week.

But the Romney campaign's attempt to control the message fell victim to its own disciplined approach.

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After Romney zipped past CNN's camera without making a comment, the candidate and his staff hopped aboard their campaign plan for a five-hour flight to Ohio.

While he was in the air, his adversaries were having a field day with his silence on the Limbaugh comments.

A tweet from this reporter about Romney's nonresponse was re-tweeted by other media outlets and within seconds it had entered the social media bloodstream.

Before long, the news (or lack thereof) was picked up by the left-leaning Web sites Huffington Post and Think Progress, which spread the information to their hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter.

By the end of the day, the President Barack Obama's top political adviser, David Axelrod, had tweeted: "Rush's vile, appalling assault on Sandra Fluke deserves universal condemnation. How can folks who calls themselves leaders walk away?"

It was a clear shot at Romney, who was just landing in Ohio.

Flash forward to moments after Romney had finished his speech in Cleveland Friday evening. The embeds pounced. And Romney finally broke his silence.

"I'll just say this, which is it's not the language I would have used," Romney said before moving down the rope line.

Had Romney said the same thing six hours earlier, or perhaps something a bit more condemnatory, the GOP contender would have averted a news cycle marked by his silence.

All of this is just dawning on the campaigns in this new maelstrom. This is the first presidential campaign to feel the full effects of Twitter. Back in the 2008 campaign, the site was in its political infancy, used to shoot out press releases and shoot down negative stories more than anything else.

The last campaign was more about YouTube -- the Obama Girl and so on.

How things have changed.

Witness Andrew Kaczynski at the website Buzz Feed. Kaczynski has quickly earned a large social media following by tirelessly unearthing long-forgotten and mostly embarrassing videos lurking in the bowels of C-SPAN's website and YouTube and tweeting them out.

Reporters who follow Kaczynski then re-tweet his handiwork and the earworm is born. If the video is good enough -- such as the one from 2002 featuring then-Governor Romney describing himself on C-SPAN as having "progressive views" -- count on the clip to surface on cable news.

Former Jon Huntsman press secretary Tim Miller kept a sharp eye on his own Twitter account while his candidate was in the race to stay on top of the onslaught of information. To stay on guard, he simply followed all of the people tweeting about Huntsman.

"With the expansion of news outlets covering the day-to-day minutiae of the campaign and Twitter creating a never-ending news cycle, this campaign has made rapid response and message discipline more important than ever," Miller told CNN.

Naturally, the candidates handle this volatile environment in different ways. Whereas Romney does his best to tune out the noise, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich seem to plunge right into it.

Santorum could not be more different than Romney in his dealings with the media. The former Pennsylvania senator holds "avails" nearly every day. After debates, he barrels straight into the media spin rooms to take questions.

Unlike Romney, GOP spin-doctors say, Santorum needs the free media.

"Romney's advantages with organization and funding mean that he is not as dependent on earned media as is Santorum," former Republican National Committee spokesman Doug Heye said.

"Santorum does more interviews, not necessarily because he wants to, but that he has to," Heye said.

This approach also has its drawbacks.

In the days before the Michigan primary, Santorum was within striking distance of dealing Romney what could have been a death blow in his home state.

Then Santorum, who should know better given his long history of dealing with a certain Google problem, blew up on Twitter.

He accused the president of being a "snob" for wanting young people to go to college. He said he wanted to "throw up" over President John F. Kennedy's call for a separation of church and state.

The comments were predictably reduced into 140-character tweet-bombs that detonated under the Michigan hopes of his insurgent campaign. Santorum would later chastise the free media for not covering the real issues voters care about.

Message clarity, something Santorum lacked in those days before Michigan, may be one way to manage the chaos.

"You need a clear message across all mediums and be able to quickly dispense with any threats to that message," Huntsman's Miller said.

For the most part, this is what works for Romney -- his embeds spend much of their time tweeting out the more benign details of his campaign stops -- the stagecrafting, the music, the campaign's message of the day.

This is all appreciated by the campaign, whose staffers have privately told reporters they monitor tweets with great interest.

But message discipline has its limits. Having had quite enough of Romney's silence, the embeds banded together in the quest for some kind of social media justice on Friday.

After getting their quote from Romney, one of the embeds tweeted out a note of congratulations to her colleagues. That tweet was followed by a fair number of retweets.

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