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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 11:29 AM ET, 03/27/2012

Santorum v. Zeleny: Two men doing their jobs

Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times reports that he has had little difficulty reporting on the campaign of Rick Santorum. “I’ve had a fine relationship with his campaign and have been covering him for months,” Zeleny writes via e-mail.

Had the campaign ever expressed displeasure with anything he’d written about Santorum? “No,” comes the response.

This solid working relationship imploded on Sunday, after a Santorum speech in Wisconsin. This much we know:

*In his speech, Santorum says that rival Mitt Romney is “the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama.”

*After the speech, Santorum is asked about this apparently sweeping statement.

*With a camera from CBS catching the action, Zeleny puts the question to the candidate, asking about his contention that “Mitt Romney was the worst Republican in the country. Is that true?”

*Santorum loses it. “What speech did you listen to?... Stop lying. I said that he was the worst Republican to run on the issue of Obamacare.... For every speech I give, I say he is uniquely disqualified to run against Barack Obama on the issue of health care.... I’ve been saying it in every speech. Quit distorting my words. If I see it, it’s bull****.... You knew exactly what I was saying, and you misrepresented it.”

Who’s the jerk here?

At the root of the contretemps is what Santorum said in his appeal to supporters. To hear Zeleny tell it, the candidate simply said that Romney was the “worst Republican” to put on a ballot against Obama. No qualifiers. Zeleny tells me via e-mail: “I was asking him to elaborate on his suggestion that Mitt Romney would be the worst Republican in the country to face President Obama. He did not offer a specific reason — health care or any other topic — when he said that remark earlier to the crowd.”

That’s a matter of dispute.

Judging from his reaction to Zeleny’s question, Santorum clearly came away from the speech secure in the notion that he’d made the linkage — that is, that he’d said that Romney was the worst Republican in the country to take the health-care fight to President Obama. After all, he’d said that many times before on the stump, as he lectured to Zeleny.

But let’s have a look at what he actually said in the address. Here’s how the whole “worst” moment came together, via CNN:

Fifty-dollar abortions subsidized by RomneyCare. And if you’re low income, they’re free.
Why would we put someone up who is uniquely — pick any other Republican in the country. He is the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama. Why would Wisconsin want to vote for someone like that?

So the “worst Republican” comment came just after some remarks about health care. Could it also be interpreted as free-standing?

Apparently so. In an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Santorum noted that he’d had to deal with that same question three times “in a matter of four minutes” following the speech.

Perhaps he should have taken the multiple inquiries as a hint that he’d left some vagueness at the podium. Instead, Santorum merely got ticked off, to the point that he exploded on Zeleny, keeping himself in the cable-TV loop. A window into his anger opened when he blamed the Romney campaign for having “fed the line to all the reporters.” A Romney aide attended the event.

So did the Romney aide sic Zeleny on Santorum with a gotcha question? “No, that’s not true in my case,” responds Zeleny. “If that had happened, I would have written about it. It would be a pretty interesting sign of worry on Romney campaign’s part! I asked Senator Santorum the question because I wanted to hear his answer and his rationale for his argument.”

The episode drives at the purpose of campaign reporting. Zeleny is an experienced political correspondent for the Times and knows Santorum’s standard appeal to voters. He also knows when that rhetoric takes a more drastic turn. In the case of “worst Republican,” all Zeleny was doing was asking Santorum if indeed there was an uptick in the attack.

He asked a question, which is to say that he was doing his job. Questions are asked so that reporters can decide what to publish and what not to publish. Says Zeleny: “It was a legitimate follow-up question — short, respectful and objective — that turned out to be a bit more revealing than I expected. He could have answered it in a variety of ways, including simply saying: ‘Because of health care.’ ”

Dick Stevenson, the New York Times’s top political editor, notes, “Given what Santorum said, it was an entirely appropriate question asked in an entirely respectful way.” Stevenson says he hasn’t heard any complaint from the Santorum people. “I would have a hard time seeing what they could possibly be complaining about,” he says. “We prefer not to be the story. We didn’t try to become a part of this story. We’re not advancing this story. We’re not picking a fight with them....What they choose to do with this is really up to them.”

They’re choosing to make a big deal of it. Santorum yesterday told CNN: “Any good conservative who hasn’t had a flare-up with the New York Times isn’t worth their salt.” Hear that, base?

Asked for a response to the matter, a Santorum spokeswoman e-mailed this statement: “Yet again, to make this crystal clear, Mitt Romney’[s] Romneycare is the prototype for Obamacare. Given that Romney repeatedly advocated for Romneycare to be implemented on the national level, Rick made the point that this makes Romney uniquely unqualified to take on President Obama.”

If only Santorum had used those words.

By  |  11:29 AM ET, 03/27/2012

 
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