MANCHESTER, N.H.--For months, and maybe more, the reelection Rasputins in Chicago have been salivating at a Mitt Romney whom they could depict as a lot like John Kerry: fatally opportunistic, possessed of an inner tuning fork hypersensitive to the electoral moment--the type of candidate who would rend himself into all manner of rhetorical contortion if he spied a few votes on the other side of the bend.
Turns out, the Mitt Romney almost assured of emerging on Tuesday night with a New Hampshire primary victory isn’t weakened in that direction as much as he is in the spot where Kerry’s old partner in the Senate, Edward Kennedy, gutted the Republican more than 17 years ago.
Romney’s GOP opponents have found a Romney weakness, and a cooperative press, in an area not included in what longtime Romney advisers consider the three legs of his stool of vulnerability: the flip-flop thing, the health care thing, and the Mormon thing. Instead, it is the Romney-as-Gordon-Gekko meme where rivals have found recent traction.
It’s where the Newt Gingrich-affiliated super PAC hopes to draw blood with its 27-minute video, “King of Bain,” depicting Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital as a spree of leveraged buyouts and front-office apathy toward the working man. It contrasts harshly with the blue-collar, old-economy message espoused by Rick Santorum. And it’s on loan from Karl Rove’s philosophy of turning an opponent’s strength–-in Romney’s case, a message of job-creation and profit-production in private-sector America that no other candidate or President Obama can match-–into a negative.
It’s an economically opportune moment for such a line of aggression. Who hasn’t heard a friend cuss out the bloodless corporate drone who just pink-slipped him or her? Who hasn’t eyed the new M.B.A. with the corner office with concern and a little resentment?
Romney’s infrastructural advantage in New Hampshire is significant enough that he will almost certainly overcome the lousy two days with which he closed here--from the first debate of the whole season in which his challengers effectively criticized him to his widely misreported line that he likes "being able to fire people who provide services to me” (not, as repeatedly quoted on Monday, that he actually enjoys the act of firing people).
In South Carolina, where Romney shares less geographic and cultural affinity with the electorate, and which holds more sway in the GOP nominating process, Romney will likely arrive with both a caucus and a primary win, a sense of momentum whose subsequent reversal would be spectacular. “The way to win is to put together a string of wins,” Romney adviser Stuart Stevens told reporters on Monday night after a rally for his candidate here.
But, as Stevens and the rest of the Romney campaign have learned, their opponents will be poring over anything and everything their candidate says for any potential weakness they can exploit.