For much of the primary season, we saw a kind, easy-going Mitt Romney. Confronted early by Tim Pawlenty on Romneycare, Romney dismissed the “Obamneycare” line with the flick of the wrist and the seemingly formidable Rick Perry folded like a cheap suit in the debates. The air of inevitability around Romney was his greatest weapon. He was anointed, descended from the establishment on high to be the nominee to defeat President Obama.
Candidates came and went, each spending a few days or more in the spotlight. But Romney always appeared to be the guy who win it all in the end. While they had time, the GOP electorate played with their toys.
Then came the Iowa caucuses. Mitt was poised to win and for a while he had – by just a few votes. Then, just days after the results were certified, Rick Santorum was declared the winner.
Easy-going Mitt was still around after handily winning the New Hampshire primaries, even when his backers went on the offense against threats like Newt Gingrich when they emerged.
When Romney shockingly lost the South Carolina primary, the his campaign changed tactics on a dime. The inevitable candidate losing two out of three contests isn’t good for the brand.
Thus, Romney went nuclear on Gingrich. His campaign aired no less than 3,276 negative ads in Florida while his SuperPAC of backers aired 4,969 – all in one week. Romney’s demeanor changed. During the debates he went at Newt with a fury no one knew he was capable of.
Gingrich was called “foolish,” “out of bounds,” and “disgusting.” He was attacked for having “more baggage than the airlines,” being accused of ethic violations, working for Freddie Mac, and sponsoring a bill with Nancy Pelosi to give money to the UN that supported China’s one child policy – and that’s just in one ad.
The merits of those attacks can be found elsewhere, and lord knows Gingrich did his share of attacks as well. But there was one result: Gingrich was put out and Romney won Florida in a relative landslide.
History could repeat itself. After Santorum surprised everyone by making a close second and belatedly winning Iowa, he never saw a big bounce in the polls nationally or elsewhere. Then came the post-Florida contests of Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota. Santorum had a clean sweep while Romney later won in Maine.
Next on the schedule is the Michigan contest – long considered a Romney lock. Not anymore. Santorum is now up over Romney by 15 in the state where Mitt’s own father was once governor. Much like Florida, Michigan is a state Romney can’t afford to lose if he wants to maintain his position on high – if he even still has it.
So prepare for Romney to let slip the dogs of war, to take out Santorum while he’s still just a giant thorn in his side rather than a ball and chain on his ankle. He’ll attack him on his past comments on social issues (although subtly enough to avoid ticking off the base), right to work votes in the Senate (which Ron Paul already tried), and Rick’s time in DC (which helps Romney paint himself as an outsider). It will be relentless.
It will likely depress the base even further this cycle, lower voter turnout, and possibly help out Obama in November. But if things go as they did in Florida, Romney will regain his mojo and continue his stumbled march to the convention, for better or for worse.