Rick Santorum will talk your ear off with no press handler. Mitt Romney has done a limited amount of print press sitdowns, although he’s being doing a limited amount of cable TV. Gov. Rick Perry has kept the press at bay (no cable TV, no print interview, few questions from the press gaggle since the Bernanke gaffe). After an interview with radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham didn’t go well, he retreated to Sean Hannity’s comfort zone. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) did all the Sunday talk shows after her win in the Ames straw poll but has since been criticized as being overhandled and sheltered at press events.

Part of the reason for this is the relative standing of the candidates. So long as Perry is riding high in the polls (and investing great stock in national polling) there is no need to expose himself to the media. Santorum needs oxygen, so free media is a necessity for him. Romney, until recently, has been playing the four-corner offense and avoiding errors, so a limited amount of TV in settings in which he feels comfortable (e.g. CNBC) has worked for him.

But plainly this is also a function of the candidates’ attitudes toward the press and their confidence levels. Santorum is comfortable that he can respond to virtually any query, whether on substance or process. Bachmann has perfected the art of the TV interview and can run circles around frustrated interviewers. Perry has yet to roll out policies and has issues in his record that he has not fully dealt with (e.g. mandatory HPV vaccination, accusations of crony capitalism), so the risk of a Katie Couric-like meltdown is too great. Moreover, he’s always kept the press at bay, whether by destroying e-mails, refusing to debate his opponent or generally ignoring the press corps.

In Perry’s case it is not exactly a lack of confidence. In this telling portrayal a Perry watcher explains that Perry simply doesn’t care about the things national media likes to ask about:

He never lived in the world of policy agendas as it was described in “Policy Development.” In that world, politicians identify problems and seek solutions. ...

He doesn’t think about politics in terms of problems and solutions. He thinks about politics in terms of ideology and power.

Why, from his perspective, answer a bunch of nagging questions about what he’s done in Texas or what sort of tax reform he favors? It’s a smart strategy so long as he can sustain it and the debates go off without a hitch.

That said, it is a truism that candidates and campaigns that are more accessible and proficient at getting their story out — and are less defensive — generally get better coverage. In 2008 Sen. John McCain’s willingness to talk to anyone and everyone (in townhalls, on TV, in blogger conference calls) ultimately paid off. And in the Democratic field Hillary Clinton had to come out of her cocoon.

The candidates’ press strategies will no doubt change as the race progresses, but it will be interesting to see which candidates hide from, and which fully engage, the media. As you would expect for a front-runner, Perry is now getting roughed up by national media that is beginning to focus in on Perry’s words, as ABC did on its evening news show last night.

Romney, for example, sat down with the editorial board of Foster’s Daily Democrat, a local New Hampshire paper, and came off looking extremely good:

Romney seems to have come of age, thus the phrase “comfortable in his own skin.” This initial perception of him was reinforced as the editorial board meeting went on. Thus a bit later in our notes is the word “mature.”

Foster’s believes that as a candidate and an individual, Romney has grown immensely in four years (again, not “changed” as opponents argue).

His relaxed nature gave the impression of a man at peace with himself and his positions on the issue. The latter was apparent as we asked him to discuss the multiple wars the United States is currently fighting and may be dragged into fighting (like Syria).

One by one, Romney analyzed, diagnosed then prescribed. Agree or disagree at each point along the way, Romney offered a confidence that was reassuring, especially given the mixed signals coming out of the White House these days.

If nothing else, the press strategies of the respective candidates will tell us how they would handle a critical part of the presidency, communicating through and using media to the White House’s advantage. Having survived enough cringe-inducing George W. Bush press conferences, conservatives might actually prefer someone who can hold his own with the national press corps.