MILFORD, Mich. — The most consistent note in Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign is attacking his rivals for their ideological inconsistency. It’s a nervy strategy for a candidate whose own greatest vulnerability is the sense, especially among conservatives, that he has serially reconsidered his positions for political advantage on issues from abortion to gay rights to immigration.
But the former Massachusetts governor is enjoying enormous success in raising doubts about whether the rivals claiming ground to his right are truly committed to conservative principles, with Rick Santorum the latest victim in a one-sided CNN debate on Wednesday night.
Just as he did earlier when Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich gained momentum, Romney highlighted elements of Santorum’s record that challenged his self-portrayal as a man of resolute conservative conviction. Romney powerfully painted the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania as a calculating politician who took an array of positions in Congress for reasons of expediency.
In effect, Romney made the case against Santorum—and Gingrich and Perry before him—that many conservative activists have made against Romney himself. Romney’s success in leveling those arguments is a source of mounting frustration to the conservatives still dubious of him.
“It is a very risky strategy, but so far it has worked because so far neither Perry … nor Gingrich nor Santorum have been able to turn the tables back on Romney even though it would be easy to do so,” said Keith Appell, a veteran conservative public-relations consultant unaffiliated in the race. “And we know this because after five years of running, Romney hasn’t convinced conservatives [he is one of them]. It is mind-boggling to some that articulate conservative candidates lose this argument in the debates.”
In 2004, Republican strategist Karl Rove made famous the tactic of attacking an opponent’s greatest strength by directly assaulting Democrat John Kerry’s credentials on national security. Romney seems to be taking that idea one step further by attacking his opponents on a front that is perceived to be his own greatest weakness. Or maybe Romney is just validating the old belief that the best defense is a good offense.
“One of the things that stung us the last time was this [charge of] inconsistency and flip-flopping,” one senior Romney adviser said. “The charges were made by people who, when you look at their record, had their own series of back and forth. Nobody was 100 percent pure. We were determined, if we got into this this time, to make sure we understood where everybody had been and to have the opportunity to reveal that.”
Romney’s success at discouraging conservatives from coalescing behind one alternative candidate has been a key to his resilience in the tumultuous GOP contest. For all of the volatility in the Republican presidential race, the two central dynamics have mostly remained stable. The first is the sharp divide in the party over Romney. He has steadily, if not spectacularly, consolidated support from the party’s managerial wing—the overlapping circles of more affluent, better educated, more moderate, and secular voters, many of whom do not identify with the tea party. At the same time, in all but his strongest states (New Hampshire, Florida, and Nevada), Romney has faced much more resistance from the party’s populist wing—the overlapping circles of working-class votes, evangelical Christians, and ardent tea party supporters. That contrasting pattern of support and resistance is vivid, for instance, in the succession of Michigan polls showing Romney and Santorum running virtually step-for-step.
The second major dynamic is the inability of that roiling populist constituency to lastingly align behind a single alternative to Romney. Since last summer, polls have shown those voters moving successively toward Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota, Perry, businessman Herman Cain, Gingrich, Santorum in Iowa, then Gingrich again in South Carolina, and now, Santorum for a second time. None of those candidates successfully held that support for a sustained period. “You have a defined person in Romney and others emerging as the anti-Romney,” said Keith Nahigian, Bachmann’s former campaign manager. “Then when they get exposed for not being true conservatives, Romney becomes the better choice again.”
In most of these instances, Romney encouraged the disillusionment with a strong shove. Repeatedly, he has found a slim but sharp wedge of issues on which his opponent seemed to deviate from conservative orthodoxy and then pounded away at it, both in television ads and in the debates.
With Perry, Romney’s wedge was the Texas governor’s support for providing in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants; with Gingrich, it was his call for allowing some illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S., his criticism of the House Republican plan to restructure Medicare, and his work for Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored housing finance agency anathema to many economic conservatives.
Santorum’s turn in the barrel comes after his surprise sweep of three contests earlier this month. In a series of attacks that culminated in a relentless assault at Wednesday’s debate, Romney has hit Santorum for pursuit of congressional earmarks, for his support for organized labor, for backing President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, and for his endorsement of moderate fellow Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter when Specter was challenged from the right in a 2004 primary. Through these individual criticisms, Romney has presented a cumulative indictment of Santorum as “a career politician who played the same old insider games in Washington,” as Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul put it in a statement on Thursday.
Romney lightly flicked at those arguments again Thursday night at a town hall meeting with tea party activists in this small community about an hour west of Detroit. “One of the candidates last night spent most of the evening describing why he voted against his principles, and he said, ‘You know, you’ve got to take it for the team now and then,’” Romney said. “Well my team is the people of the United States of America.”
Romney’s case against Santorum received only a mixed reception among the large crowd here Thursday night. Tim Hurley, from South Lyon, said he was supporting Romney because of his business experience, but he said he found Romney’s arguments somewhat unfair. “It’s a condition of being a senator,” said Hurley, who described himself as self-employed. “There’s no such thing as a pure vote, so you are put in a position to compromise yourself.”
Patrick Grimes, an engineer from nearby Novi still deciding between Santorum and Romney, watched the debate and considered Romney’s arguments “baloney.” He said, “If you tear apart the record of any congressman or senator, you are going to find anomalies.”
Those reactions suggest this latest Romney offensive may not be as devastating as his earlier salvos against Perry and Gingrich. Yet given Romney’s strength in the party’s center, he probably needs only to dislodge a relatively modest number of conservatives from Santorum’s camp to regain the advantage in the race, particularly if Gingrich continues to divide that vote.
Dale Wiltse, who owns a radio business in Millford, virtually repeated arguments from pro-Romney commercials and the debate exchanges when asked his opinion of Santorum. “I think he’s a career politician,” Wiltse said. “Santorum says he wants to save money but if you look back at his behavior, it hasn’t been toward saving money.”
The strategy has not been cost-free for Romney. It has required him to stake out unflinchingly conservative positions on an array of issues that could present liabilities in a general election, including the auto bailout, immigration and the congressional Republican drive to transform Medicare into a premium support or voucher system. Earlier this week, he moved to further preempt any challenge on the right by unveiling a plan to cut marginal tax rates for all income-earners by 20 percent. If Romney reaches the general election, that could be a difficult sell in a period when polls consistently show up to two-thirds of Americans support raising taxes on the wealthy to help reduce the deficit. On Thursday night, he assailed “union bosses” and “union stooges” in an indictment notable both for its ferocity and duration.
Through most of 2011, Romney generally resisted taking positions that might cause him problems as the nominee. But as he’s been tested more severely than most expected in the primaries, Romney — with the same methodical approach he’s applied to confronting his rivals as they emerge —has grown more willing to accept greater risk in the fall to weaken his primary opponents today.