Now Comes the Spin

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 4, 2008; 8:26 AM

It's a very big win for Barack Obama, in part because he knocked off the former first lady and in part because the media have been hankering to write the upset story.

But remember all the pundits taking Hillary Clinton's inevitability for granted most of the year, and despairing during the summer and fall that Obama could never catch up because he wasn't pummeling her? He never hammered Hillary all that hard, and he still caught up.

Hillary still has a national lead, but can that survive the media tsunami about her third-place finish?

For close to 11 months, the media essentially ignored Mike Huckabee, who just breezed to a surprisingly easy win in the Iowa caucuses despite being outspent by 20 to 1. Heck of a job, gang.

Huckabee was so strong that Mitt Romney conceded on Fox News at 8:57 last night, with only 15 percent of caucuses reporting. Romney congratulated Huckabee and used his line about having started in the single digits--but that was before he spent many months and many millions in an effort to sew up Iowa.

Three minutes later, MSNBC and then CNN projected Huck the winner, and he got a siren on Drudge.

It's a remarkable tale. The commentators still think Huckabee may go nowhere after this, but don't we in the news business look short-sighted for treating him as an asterisk for so long? He was good for comic relief--the wisecracking, bass-playing, weight-losing preacher man--but he couldn't win, could he?

The media ridicule--about the negative ad he pulled but still played, about his decision to ditch Des Moines for Leno--didn't matter much in the end.

We in the news business made the same mistake we've made so many times before, overvaluing money and organization. Phil Gramm was going to be huge in 1996 because of his war chest. Howard Dean was virtually guaranteed to win because he had raised the then-unimaginable sum of $40 million. But in the end, message and personality can trump fat checkbooks and precinct workers.

We cling to those benchmarks because they feel real. We overvalue early polls, which can change in a heartbeat, as Huckabee just demonstrated.

The three cable networks called the Democratic race for Obama at 9:28. Suddenly there was talk about race, which in my view most of the media had studiously avoided for months.

"For a black man to win the Iowa caucus is astounding," Juan Williams said. Donna Brazile called it "a victory for national reconciliation." White commentators reminded viewers that Iowa is an overwhelmingly white state.

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