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.