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Opinion Is Donald Trump picking a fight with the wrong media outlet?

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An old saying from the time before electronic media had it that you should never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. Conservatives have been ignoring that advice for some time, but none before have made their arguments with the media as personal as Donald Trump. And now he’s all but going to war with one newspaper in particular, the New Hampshire Union Leader, the largest newspaper in the state that holds the first presidential primary. The stakes for Trump are extremely high, perhaps higher than most people realize.

On Monday, the Union Leader — which has endorsed Chris Christie in the primary — published a front-page editorial written by its publisher, Joseph McQuaid, in which he criticized Trump for some of his rhetorical excesses and compared him to Biff from “Back to the Future,” a stereotypical bully. Trump was plainly incensed, as he made clear in an appearance in Nashua yesterday:

“You have a very dishonest newspaper up here. It’s also a failing newspaper. It’s going down the tubes. I remember when this was the big newspaper. Look at the size of this,” said Trump, holding up a copy of the Union Leader. “If they cut it down any more, you won’t be able to find it.”
Trump spoke at length about McQuaid — one riff going on for more than 10 minutes — in an hour-long rally at Pennichuck Middle School in Nashua. He claimed the publisher asked him for a favor: to Tweet to his 5 million followers on Twitter that Christie should be on the prime-time debate stage. Trump said he did it, realizing that Christie might win the endorsement.
Trump also claimed McQuaid asked him for favors. He said he was asked to give a speech in New Hampshire and was later invited to play a round of golf with McQuaid at “his country club,” the Derryfield Country Club, a municipally owned golf course in Manchester. The candidate said he declined because he was busy running for President.
“I’ve watched this guy and, honestly, he’s a loser,” Trump said.

Unlike some of Trump’s other media opponents, the Union Leader has no investment in appearing objective; it’s a conservative paper, and it has never been shy about making its opinions known, on the editorial or news pages. Trump has feuded with conservative media before, particularly Fox News, but even it has to adopt a stance of neutrality within the Republican primary, which keeps it from striking back. But if McQuaid wants to, he could turn the Union Leader into a daily anti-Trump advertisement for the next six weeks.

That’s important because New Hampshire is absolutely critical to Trump’s campaign. Even if his support is not as fragile as many people have assumed, there is one thing that could crack it. It’s not his voters realizing that Trump isn’t a reliable conservative, or that he understands nothing about policy, or that he’s a jerk. The one thing that could really hurt Trump is if people start to see him as a loser.

And that could happen if he falls in New Hampshire. Right now Ted Cruz is leading in Iowa, and if there’s one place where Trump’s relative lack of ground organization matters, it’s in those caucuses on Feb. 1. So it won’t be a surprise if he loses there, and if Cruz does win, all the discussion will be about how this was just what we all expected to happen. But then the New Hampshire primary comes eight days later, and if Trump were to lose there, after leading in the polls pretty much since he entered the race, it would be an enormous blow. That isn’t to say he couldn’t come back from that defeat, win the next big primary (South Carolina on Feb. 20) and regain the momentum necessary to take the nomination. But for the first time, he would have lost a contest he was expected to win, headlines around the country would read “Trump Loses” and the narrative around his campaign could shift quickly.

It’s hard to overestimate just how central the idea that Trump is a winner is to his candidacy. (It’s also quite obviously central to his own self-image and psychology, which is part of why he’s constantly accusing people he doesn’t like of being losers.) His supporters are drawn to him in large part because they see Washington Republicans as ineffectual and weak, always promising to defeat President Obama and roll back his policies but never being able to deliver. In comes Trump with all his bluster, saying that America doesn’t win anymore, but once he’s president “We will have so much winning when I get elected that you will get bored with winning.” It’s a compelling message, and everything people see in Trump’s image — the private plane, the gold-plated homes, the rotating cast of supermodel wives — reinforces it.

At the moment, his opponents can’t say that Trump is a loser, because he has never actually been tested at the polls. But if he loses the first two contests, all of a sudden you’ll see them mocking him as a loser, the one charge that could really bite.

There’s a limit to what the New Hampshire Union Leader can do to make that happen. It has a mixed record of picking winners in the state’s primary (its endorsement of Newt Gingrich four years ago didn’t stop him from finishing fourth), and it’s just one newspaper, not to mention one that even its readers understand is idiosyncratic in its preferences and beliefs. But if the race becomes close, having an important local media outlet crusading against Trump could make a difference. If Trump keeps attacking the paper and its publisher, that might be just what happens.