Top-Tier Coverage Hides the Truth

A failure to look at the also-rans may leave the media red-faced.

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The media should be prepared to offer myriad excuses when former Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee either wins or finishes a strong second in the Iowa caucuses.

There will be even more reasons to look foolish if a long-shot Democrat surprises the field. It could happen.

This longer-than-ever primary-caucus season hasn't been just poll driven. It has been top-tier driven.

Based on strong name identification and money-raising ability, the media—especially cable TV—have assigned top-tier designation to six candidates. The names are well known: Democrats Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards; Republicans Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and John McCain. Add Fred Thompson to the late top-tier list, although his disorganized campaign has hardly been of any top-tier quality.

Those six or seven have dominated the headlines and debate coverage for several months. The other struggling contenders are treated as also-rans with little or no chance of breaking through.

Huckabee, who until a few weeks ago was in the low single digits in the polls, has emerged of late as a strong top-tier candidate. The media immediately embraced him; his GOP rivals started attacking him as a legitimate threat. Welcome to the top tier, Governor.

On the Democratic side, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, two veteran senators, have made sense on the trail and in debates. The same goes for Bill Richardson. But they are far back in that so-called second tier.

Another problem with the top-tier designation is that the group is hardly covering itself with glory amid stinging attacks. They sound like hollering teenagers in a high school hallway.

In the past, Iowa and New Hampshire have produced major surprises for top-tier folks. It will most likely happen again in January, and the media will try to explain it. And with a straight face.