The cover-your-butt reporting has begun even before the results of the Iowa caucuses are in. As recently as a week ago, when Gov. Howard Dean and Rep. Dick Gephardt looked to most reporters like the clear front-runners in Iowa, much of the campaign press seemed to have forgotten about even covering Sen. John Kerry and Sen. John Edwards. Now, shocked out of their complacency by recent polls showing a four-way log-jam at the top — and particularly by a Des Moines Register survey released yesterday that showed Kerry leading and Edwards in second — reporters are scrambling to make amends.

Leading the pack are The New York Times’ Adam Nagourney and Jim Rutenberg, whose page one story focuses on sniping between Kerry and Edwards, and also devotes prominent space to a deal between Edwards and Kucinich. Dean isn’t mentioned until the story’s thirteenth paragraph, and Gephardt doesn’t show up until the fifteenth.

The flip side of the sudden infatuation with Kerry and Edwards is the simultaneous estrangement from Dean. Exhibit A is The Wall Street Journal’s lead story today by Jacob Schlesinger and John Harwood (subscription required). The article — whose sub-head reads “With Dean’s Aura Dimming, Democratic Rivals See Chance to Pick Up New Momentum” — seems almost designed to consign Dean’s campaign to the graveyard even while his corpse is still alive and breathing.

In its second paragraph, the story describes Dean as “losing popular support”, while Gephardt is said to be “within striking distance.” In fact, not only does Dean lead Gephardt in the poll that the Journal was referring to, but the recent decline of Gephardt - who, to a far greater extent than Dean, has staked his campaign on success in Iowa — has been just as sharp, if not sharper, than that of Dean.

In a classic case of reporters allowing one campaign’s spin to become the story, Schlesinger and Harwood report that Kerry supporters are wearing buttons saying, “Dated Dean, Married Kerry.”

Yeah, and what do you think the Dean buttons say?

As if to make their newfound allegiance crystal-clear, here’s how Schlesinger and Harwood end their piece: “Some voters now seem more willing to pay attention to Mr. Kerry’s long Washington resume, comparing it with Mr. Dean’s dozen years as governor of one of the smallest states in the country.”

—Zachary Roth

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.