Never mind Newt Gingrich. It’s Democrats who have been giving Mitt Romney the most trouble lately.
The DNC and the Obama campaign have relentlessly harassed him for weeks, forcing him to battle two fronts as he struggles to secure the nomination. Their efforts have constituted a kind of trial run for the general election as they’ve ignored other Republican candidates and aimed their full fire on Romney.
And they’ve had some successes recently. The DNC went after Romney over and over for his refusal to support extending the payroll tax cut for example, highlighting an October quote in which he referred to the move as a “little band aid” substitute for broader reform. On Monday, Romney came out for the extension, saying it was necessary because “working families are really feeling the pinch right now.”
After a Romney ad in New Hampshire last month used a misleadingly clipped Obama quote to suggest a Republican strategist’s words were his own, the DNC unleashed an all-out effort to draw attention to the distortion that gained significant traction in the press, including the local networks in key primary states. The Romney campaign has since had to defend the spot repeatedly. As recently as this week, an unnamed Romney aide was still being pressed by the New York Times’ Thomas Edsall over the 30-second spot, justifying it as typical campaign “propaganda.”
But nowhere have they had more impact than with their efforts to resurrect the old “flip flop” attack against Romney. Despite it being a well known vulnerability, Republican rivals had little luck using it against Romney for most of the campaign. Now, a steady stream of Democratic web videos, press releases, and ads have helped return it to the national discussion — much to the annoyance of Romney, who appeared surprised to get questions on the topic in an widely panned interview with FOX News’ Bret Baier.
“While other Republicans have been hesitant to go there with Romney straight-up publicly, the DNC is doing all this stuff explicitly with their name attached,” one GOP strategist at a rival presidential campaign told TPM. “That helps get media to cover what are some really significant negatives about Romney. And as Romney knows from last time around, if a bad media meme develops around you, it impacts your candidacy.”
The Democratic attacks do have some upside for Romney’s campaign in that they single him out as the most plausible general election nominee and distract from rival candidates’ messages. After the DNC briefly ran an ad in several swing states on his flip flops, for example, Romney’s aides organized a dozen press calls with top supporters in swing states to argue that the spot shows President Obama is most worried about facing Romney. They also looked to make Democrats pay a price for going negative so early, accusing Democrats of dodging a discussion of the economy in favor of personal attacks.
“[The] Romney campaign response shows that this isn’t their first rodeo,” Kevin Madden, Romney’s 2008 spokesman, told TPM. “They’ve shown an ability to respond to DNC attacks across multiple states, while at the same time planning and executing their own bracketing effort on President Obama wherever he goes, whatever he says. Going against a billion-dollar enterprise like the Obama campaign is going to require a campaign with the experience to not only fight back but go on offense against Chicago and the DNC. The Romney campaign is showing they can do that.”
Romney’s supporters are absolutely right that he polls much better against Obama than other Republicans. And there’s little doubt Democrats are praying someone else gets the nomination. But the attacks may be making it tougher for Romney, who trails Gingrich badly in polling around the country, to get to the big show in the first place.
“Some might say that’s smart media strategy to pit yourself against the DNC in a GOP primary - but when you’re giving life to an attack that underscores the kind of doubts conservatives already have about you, you’re making a mistake,” Priorities USA founder Bill Burton told TPM.
In the meantime, the DNC’s success pushing the flip flop story back into the open is reverberating on the Republican side as well, where some candidates appear to be openly cribbing their strategy. Take this web video from Huntsman for example: