Tonight Mitt Romney squeaked out a win in the Maine caucus (although, if Ron Paul's alleged caucus antics are in force? Maybe not so fast). This ought to be a good night for him--but to say a shadow hangs over his campaign is an understatement. Yesterday at CPAC he gave a speech which, while rousing, contained what is said to be an adlibed line: "I was a severely conservative Republican governor."
What that something would be has to be keeping him and his strategists up at night. He has two choices:
Option A: The Attack From The Right
Rick Santorum has committed a number of sins against his GOP Presidential ambitions. Romney has attacked him for being a career politician and defending earmarks. These include things like supporting No Child Left Behind, having Introduced A Bill To Raise The Minimum Wage, and (beware if you easily get the vapors) Supported Funding for Amtrak! This "attack from the right" has already been launched and it didn't stop Santorum in Colorado which had a high enough Mormon population that Romney 'ought' to have won it even with his lackluster effort there.
The problem (as beautifully illustrated on NPR last night) is that if Rick Santorum was not running for president and was simply traveling around the country giving speeches no one doubts he'd be saying exactly the same things he's saying now. On the other hand, if Mitt Romney was not running for president and was just taking his message (whatever we suppose that would be, were he not running for president) around the country no one thinks he'd be saying anything close to what he is now (the NPR guys said we weren't sure what he'd be saying--but I think, mostly, we can be sure it's not identical to what he's saying now).
Even worse: Romney isn't angry. Sure, he can kinda fake it--but you can see his heart's not really in it. And if he is a little bit angry? He's not angry enough. Santorum though? Santorum is furious. This means that that when it comes to the GOP base? Romney will lose. The GOP base is super-duper angry. Maybe even too angry:
“How many of you,” Scott Rasmussen asked the crowd at this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, “have ever mocked or made fun of the president’s call for hope and change? Raise your hands.”
Most people in the Marriott Wardman Park hotel ballroom raised their hands. There were cheers and whoops.
“With all due respect,” the conservative pollster and commentator told them, “I’d like to say that’s really stupid.”
This time, there was uncomfortable laughter. “Voters are looking for hope and change as much today as they were in 2008,” Rasmussen explained, and “you ought to be encouraging Republican candidates, people you support, to offer that positive step forward.”Conclusion: If Romney sticks to attacks from the right? He will lose1.
Option B: Attack From The Left
Santorum's left flank is where the damage can really be done. Firstly Romney can attack him on his, uhm, gay position. He wants to put DADT back--or maybe just remove gays from the military altogether. He thinks that consenting adults do not have the right to privacy and that the US can regulate homosexual acts the same way the do pedophilia or bestiality. Even if you aren't particularly gay-friendly this starts getting, shall we say, uncomfortable.
Or women? A Santorum staffer said that a woman president was against God's plan. Granted, it was just a staffer and sent from a personal email account--but Santorum hasn't, erm, refudiated it and he's kinda doubled down with a statement that he consideres women in combat a concern because of the emotions involved (NOTE: one possibly valid interpretation is that he thinks the women will be fine but the men will freak out if they see a woman injured). Regardless of the degrees of separation or the honest truth of the matter, this is the makings of a dynamite from-the-left attack ad.
The big one? Abortion--especially in the case of rape and incest. Santorum believes doctors that provide those should be criminally charged. Go for broke: Santorum says contraception shouldn't be covered by insurance at all. And that states should be allowed to outlaw it. Now, on the record, he's all for it if you pay for it yourself--but still.
Santorum is, I think, pretty clearly on the wrong side of history for all of these. Even though Obama got what I think is unexpected push-back for his contraception move (a) his compromise seems to have made most of the right people happy (even though it's just a fig-leaf to "show respect" rather than a real fix and (b) he's certainly left a lot of Catholics angry as, erm, heck--but that might actually help him in the long run (I think the score shows the numbers are on Obama's side since the clergy was never going to love Obama regardless).
There's more: Santorum is connected in unsavory ways with the extremely unpopular Terri Schiavo debacle. This is, for reasons I am not entirely sure of, considered a leftist line of attack.
If Mitt attacks from the left he will, I think, have the same grade of ammunition he used on Gingrich: strong enough to do some serious damage. However, as we've seen, any GOP candidate attacking "from the left" is sufficient to drive their negatives into the basement. As Romney's life-signs in that department are already failing? He might win the battles ... but lose the war.
Conclusion: If Romney launches attacks from the left? He will lose.2
What Do I Think?
I think that this attack-from-the-left stuff is why Santorum will have a really, really hard time in the general should he make it that far. While the 99%-vs-1% stuff is not yet "battle tested" in a national election, single-issue-voting certainly has and anti-abortion, women-in-the-kitchen, homophobic stuff will hit all kinds of buzzword across multiple demographics. The DNC won't have to play the "Sexist" card--Santorum is playing it himself.
That said, while I'd love to see the Romney attack machine try to thread the needle of making left-wing attacks while not losing what hold on the base he has, I doubt Romney will go for that. Especially not, as he now has, won the CPAC straw poll (he should pull a Metallica and open with "I'd like to thank Ron Paul for not attending this year ...") and, again barely, in Maine. As I say in the footnote below, while Santorum's time at the head of the Not-Romney pack has come at, well, a really good time. But all that Romney has to do is wait for ... wait for it ... the Main-Stream-Media to do his job for him.
Do I believe in a leftist conspiracy of the media to re-elect Barack Obama? Wait for my review of the book Left Turn. But whatever I believe, once Santorum is at the top of the news every night this stuff will start coming out and coming out hard. It's going to scare people on the two dangerous fronts: that he might actually be a theocrat Neanderthal (moderates) and that whatever he really is, this stuff is so toxic he can't win the general (harder-core conservatives). This should do his job for him to a large extent (although you can argue that the MSM wasn't enough to take down Newt--which you could--but I think the MSM will find Santorum's positions ... hmmm ... tastier. Make of that what you will).
But like I said, I'm hoping that Romney crafts some really blistering attack ads that make my TV bleed. I was disappointed by Perry.
1 He won't actually lose I don't think: Santorum will likely collapse in the primary states and Ron Paul may steal his caucus delegates anyway. Plus, while Santorum excites the base it's pretty clear that he won't beat Obama unless things significantly change between now and November. But for the purposes of this, let's understand that I can afford to be far more sanguine about this than Romney can.
2 This is what makes it a Morton's Fork: two choices to choose from each with equally bad outcomes.