Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Behind the Ad: Rick Santorum goes after "liberal" Mitt Romney in South Carolina


(Another installment in our "Behind the Ad" series.)

Who: Rick Santorum attacks Mitt Romney. 

Where: South Carolina.

What's going on: It's pretty obvious. As Mark Halperin explains: "New Santorum South Carolina TV spot finally goes where many conservatives (and commentators) expected Romney rivals to go." This is a long, long time coming. Gingrich has gone there as well, making the anti-Romney case that we've been waiting for, but this makes the case more clearly than any effort previously, particularly in targeting Romneycare as a glaring problem (from a conservative perspective) from Romney's past. (Santorum is also calling on Romney to release his tax returns. What's he hiding, anyway?)

Basically, Santorum has one shot at the nomination, and that's to win South Carolina -- or at the very least to do so well there, a clear and strong second with some momentum, that Gingrich drops out and the race effectively becomes Romney-Santorum (with Paul still in it as the libertarian alternative). He likely still wouldn't be able to knock off Romney, who has the organization and elite support to win the nomination even in the face of a great deal of conservative opposition within the Republican Party, but he's obviously trying to capitalize on his social conservative (and simply conservative) bona fides (particularly now that the religious right is in his corner) and appeal to the huge constituency in the party that isn't just skeptical of Romney but even actively loathes him.

The problem for Romney isn't that this ad (and the attacks in South Carolina) will deny him the nomination but that the accumulation of attacks on Romney from his fellow Republicans, characterizing him as either a vulture capitalist or not conservative and barely even a Republican, or both, will eat into his support from conservatives come general election time. I suspect that conservatives will generally come to accept him as the only choice they have against Obama, but it is likely that enthusiasm on the right will be extremely low, possibly leading to significantly depressed voter turnout by the Republican base.

Romney may be screwed no matter how he plays it. If he panders still more to the right, he risks losing whatever appeal he has left for independents and disgruntled Democrats. But if he shifts to the center and in some way points to his more moderate bona fides, he risks losing conservatives altogether. There may be a narrow path between those two alternatives, but in taking that he risks alienating both sides and appealing only to his core support from establishmentarian Republican elites. In any event, the damage done by ads like this one may extend much further than South Carolina.

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