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Seeing who wins or loses on Super Tuesday will change how execs play the game
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When Mitt Romney won the Michigan and Arizona primaries last week, he furthered the case for his front-runner status and lead in the delegate count. But while an upset win in Michigan would have been a coup for Rick Santorum, for Romney it was merely a fulfillment of expectations and a big save from the embarrassment of losing the state in which he was born. No one in the TV news business is yet willing to say the win has firmly swung the tide in Romney’s favor.

For that distinction, they are looking to Super Tuesday, when 10 states go to the polls, including in the battleground of Ohio. If Romney begins to run away with the race after March 6, viewer interest in each following primary could wane, with a shift to an early tale of the tape of Romney vs. Obama. A strong showing by Romney’s competitors, however, means this remains a close race to cover by all the news outlets. “Super Tuesday is going to tell us a lot—there are some good states for Santorum on Super Tuesday,” said Sam Feist, CNN Washington bureau chief.

March 6 is also a must-win day for Newt Gingrich, who has not carried a state since his surprise victory Jan. 21 in South Carolina. Political observers say he must win at least one state on Tuesday to stay in the race—particularly Georgia, the state he represented in Congress for 20 years. “If he doesn’t win, and he loses Georgia, it’s going to be very hard for him to justify moving ahead,” said Amy Walter, ABC News political director.

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If Gingrich drops out after Tuesday, the Republican field becomes more of a true two-man race (though everyone expects Ron Paul to stay in, despite his tenuous prospects). But if no candidate truly comes out ahead, every future primary date takes on even more importance.

“If Super Tuesday is sort of a mixed bag and Santorum and Gingrich win more states combined than Romney, then each one of these Tuesdays will take on their own personality,” said Chuck Todd, NBC News political director and chief White House correspondent.

Debating More Debates

Feb. 22 saw the 20th and, for now, final primary debate of this election cycle, giving the candidates and viewers a break from what had become, on average, a debate every 10 days since September. The debates’ end means that for the time being, some coverage of the candidates has shifted from analyzing their intellectual posturing on stage to gauging the reactions they are getting from voters on the campaign trail.

“You really do get to see candidates in their ‘natural environment’ as opposed to [the] bubble of a debate stage,” said Walter, who cites recent moments such as Romney’s speech at a sparsely attended Ford Field in Detroit and Santorum calling President Obama a snob while stumping in Michigan. “These are not necessarily scripted, and these are not simply answers to questions posed by moderators. These are actually things coming from the candidates themselves while they’re out on the trail.”

But those in TV news also are not willing to call it quits on the debates just yet. Just as in 2008, when more debates were added as the Democratic race for the nomination stretched late into the cycle, they are expecting that a split decision this Super Tuesday would mean more debates added to the calendar.

“We’re looking to put a debate together; too many states haven’t voted,” Todd said. “You could make an argument that there ought to be a debate a month between now and June.”

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