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.