Getting under Mitt Romney’s skin: What Rick Perry can learn from Lee Atwater

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Throughout this presidential campaign, Mitt Romney has been mostly smooth and sharp. But there have been a few recent exceptions — exceptions which might expose a possible chink in Romney’s armor.

His recent debate skirmish with Rick Perry (over whether or not he hired illegal immigrants to mow his lawn)  — and his punting on whether or not he supports Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s state government union reform — were two such examples.

In the first instance, Romney was flustered. In the second, he was unable to improvise.

His primary opponents are surely taking notes.

An unseemly, but important, aspect of political campaign strategy has always involved the use of psychological warfare. If one can figure out how to take his opponent out of his comfort zone — and then execute it — that’s half the battle. But the first step is figuring out how to get under someone’s skin. And it is becoming more and more clear what Mitt Romney likes and what he doesn’t.

As The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza recently observed, “the more rules that govern an interaction, the better Romney does.” Cillizza went on to note that “to the extent [Romney] does struggle in debates, it’s when the rules are either bent or broken.”

Domenico Montanaro echoed that observation on “The Daily Rundown” Thursday, telling Chuck Todd, “… another thing that we noticed, chuck, one of the triggers for this is when [Romney’s] interrupted. he likes it when person a speaks and ends, person b responds, ends, person c can talk back. you get inside of that zone and, you know, that’s what really can trigger this different side of him.”

Lesson learned: Mitt Romney likes rules and hates being interrupted. He’s not terribly good at improvisation.

As such, I expect to see other campaigns — most likely Rick Perry’s — begin bending rules, interrupting Romney, and putting him in positions where he must improvise.

In this regard, Team Perry would do well to study up on how controversial political strategist Lee Atwater helped George H.W. Bush defeat Bob Dole in 1988. Atwater was a master at psychological warfare. As author John Brady recounts in his book, “Bad Boy The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater,” he believed that “adults could be divided into two groups: the overly mature and the childlike.”

“The overly mature,” Brady writes, “are inflexible and overserious, making them highly vulnerable in politics, particularly in the age of television. [Bob] Dole was the mature type, Atwater the child.”

The “mature type?” Sure sounds like Mitt Romney to me.

Brady continues,

It didn’t take Atwater much research to see that Dole was hypersensitive about attacks on his wife. Replaying old charges against her in Iowa, Atwater was able to get under the senators’ skin. He kept Dole’s blood boiling with the letter that accused him of starting the dirty campaigning, and he upped the pressure with the perfectly timed ad that mocked Dole’s record for New Hampshire voters. Although Atwater was the one pushing buttons, Dole’s outburst to [Tom] Brokaw [Dole’s message to Bush was “stop lying about my record.”] focused all the attention on him and his unsportsmanlike behavior. Atwater, a genius at one-upmanship, now stood back. Dole could only respond with more sourness, compounding the problem and leading to electoral suicide.

I’m, of course, not recommending that Perry or the other GOPers attack Ann Romney. What I am suggesting, however, is that the other candidates — the smart ones, at least — will attempt to get under Mitt Romney’s skin — and get him off his game.

The question is whether or not it works.

Matt K. Lewis