Romney parries rivals with his own attacks

His campaign has deployed every tactic in the negative-campaign playbook

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, greets supporters during a rally at the Skyline High Sc...

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, greets supporters during a rally at the Skyline High Sc...

When Gov. Rick Perry began rising in the polls, Mitt Romney was ready with a potent debate-night assault: Under Perry, illegal immigrants in Texas received a $100,000 tuition break.
As Newt Gingrich surged, the Romney campaign dispatched colleagues of Gingrich, a former House speaker, to ridicule him as “narcissistic” and “erratic” in conference calls that required a sardonic pass code: “Newt Gingrich is an unreliable leader.”
And with Rick Santorum persisting as a threat as 10 states prepare to vote on Tuesday, Romney unleashed an ad in Ohio on Thursday mocking him as an unprincipled flip-flopper.
The Romney campaign’s shortcomings have been on vivid display in recent weeks, from verbal stumbles to a failure to stir the passions of the Republican base.
But even his battered rivals acknowledge that Romney is proving unusually adept at defining, diminishing and disqualifying a serial cast of challengers through relentless attacks.
His campaign has deployed every tactic in the negative-campaign playbook. It has issued Twitter messages poking fun at Gingrich’s penchant for rhetorical excess (with the hashtag (POUND)grandiosenewt). It created digital slogans and a letterhead disparaging Santorum’s long career in government (“Rick Went to Washington,” they read, “and he never came back.”). It created dozens of Web videos denigrating President Barack Obama’s economic leadership (“Obama isn’t working”). And it benefited from the advertising onslaught unleashed against Romney’s rivals by a super PAC backing him.
As successful as the strategy has been, though, it has raised questions about Romney’s role in turning the primary process into something akin to a civil war, even as it has demonstrated a ferocious, whatever-it-takes style that could hearten Republicans if Romney ends up in a general election matchup against Obama.
“It’s clear the negative ads are what’s keeping this guy alive,” said Nelson Warfield, a Republican strategist who worked for Perry. “It seems like Republican primary voters will not vote for Mitt Romney unless they are forced into it. And the way they’re forced into it is when he beats the other guy senseless.”
Throughout the campaign, Romney has also been on the receiving end of attacks from his Republican rivals as well as from Democrats. But his aggressive style has been apparent since his first days in politics. For all that he can appear stiff and scripted at times, Romney has never shied away from deploying pointed and colorful broadsides against his opponents.
In his 1994 campaign against Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in Massachusetts, it was Romney, a private equity executive new to politics, who fired off the first negative commercials. One of them featured grainy, slow-motion, black and white images of Kennedy painfully easing his body onto a park bench, before cutting to a full-color video of Romney.
The message was not lost on viewers: Kennedy, then 62, was old and out of shape, a fixture of the past; Romney, 47, was young and vigorous, a promise of the future.
Angry aides to Kennedy called it “video sleaze.”
Robert M. Shrum, Kennedy’s ad-maker, recalled thinking: “You could see people sitting around in a room and laughing as they put it together. It was smarmy.”
But the commercials – amplified by ads challenging Kennedy’s congressional record on crime and job creation – helped turn what many analysts had expected to be a blowout into a surprisingly competitive race.
“We took on water because of it,” Shrum said. “They were effective.”
In 2002, when he ran for governor of Massachusetts, Romney vastly outspent his Democratic opponent, State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, whom he depicted in debates, speeches and ads as a self-dealing and entrenched vestige of a bankrupt Boston political culture.
The Romney campaign arranged for a man in a chicken costume to trail O’Brien at campaign stops, to suggest she lacked political courage. It questioned her husband’s ties to Enron, for whom he had once been a lobbyist.
And it rolled out a memorable television ad that portrayed O’Brien as a hapless basset hound, asleep on the floor as sinister-looking men walked out of a building with bags of money, a clever, if misleading image (employees of the state’s previous treasurer had been accused of stealing money.)
She lost the election by a slim margin.
“When he ran positive ads, he wasn’t winning,” said O’Brien, who asserts that some of the ads from the Romney campaign “bordered on dishonest.”
Romney’s rivals have long feared the ability of his formidable message machine to tear down opponents. But they are also consoled, they said, by the fact that his campaigns have often struggled to create a positive image for him.
‘’I think that’s Romney’s MO. His success in politics has come by running tough, hard, negative campaigns against opponents,’’ said Tad Devine, who helped run Kennedy’s campaign against Romney. “And the thing about negative campaigns, and I have certainly seen this up close and from afar, is they come at a cost. When you spend most of your political capital doing that, it leaves you open.”
In 2007, when he first ran for president, Romney sent mailings in Iowa and New Hampshire suggesting that his rivals had a weak record on illegal immigration. (One featured photographs of Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Rudolph W. Giuliani with digitally superimposed black eyes.) But Romney dropped out early in the primary season, avoiding the kind of nasty, drawn-out brawl that he has become locked in this time around.
Current and former strategists said that in the early phase of his political life, Romney expressed some unease about attacking.
His willingness to engage in negative campaigning, they said, springs from a conviction – rivals might call it a rationalization – that he is a more capable and principled steward of government than his opponents.
Alex Castellanos, a Romney adviser in the 2008 campaign, summed up the philosophy this way: “If you disqualify a candidate, if you protect society from touching a hot stone, it’s your responsibility to do that.”
Andrea Saul, a Romney spokeswoman, said, “Of course distinctions will be drawn in a campaign, but Gov. Romney has been focused on his plans to create jobs and turn around the economy, unlike President Obama’s failed policies.”
Of course, the Romney campaign has not been entirely negative – more than half of his spending has been on ads considered positive, according to Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group. Many of them feature Romney’s wife, Ann.
But negative commercials have accounted for nearly half of all the money Romney has spent on broadcast television advertising this election – $5.7 million. That is roughly as much as Gingrich, Santorum and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas have spent combined.
As with any campaign, it is the negative ads that most people remember, and political strategists have said that the Romney campaign produced the standout.
As part of its successful strategy to prevent Gingrich from winning Florida, Romney’s team started digging around for news clips of the former speaker’s ethics case. They found what they thought would make for a devastating ad: video from “The NBC Nightly News” on the day Gingrich was found guilty by his House colleagues. They produced a 30-second ad that consisted only of Tom Brokaw delivering the news. There was no announcer, no graphics with caustic allegations.
Then the campaign went for maximum exposure: It ran the ad 2,225 times over a five-day period, the most of any ad to appear on Florida television before the Jan. 31 primary.

Updated : 2021-04-16 07:38 GMT+08:00