The Democratic National Committee is upping its attacks on former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the apparent hope that his chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, will become the GOP’s standard-bearer in 2012.
A DNC ad released Monday slams Romney, who has spent the vast majority of his life in the private sector, as a “career politician.” Other recent DNC ads targeted Romney’s “flip-flops” on major issues over the course of his political career and highlighted his sub-par performance in an interview with Fox News’ Bret Baier.
Months after Gingrich’s campaign was thought to be dead in the water, he has become the Republican front-runner in recent weeks after a series of strong debate performances and serious missteps by his rivals, such as former pizza mogul Herman Cain and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Still, despite polls showing Gingrich leading the rest of the field in many early primary states, the DNC is concentrating all its fire on Romney, the candidate experts say they view as a far greater threat to President Obama’s re-election prospects.
“Rightly or wrongly, the Obama campaign regards Romney as the only GOP candidate who could potentially beat the president in 2012,” University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato told The Daily Caller.
Sabato said that while former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman could also cause trouble for the White House, his campaign his largely perceived to be going nowhere, allowing the Democrats to concentrate on Romney.
Meanwhile, Sabato said the White House would see a Gingrich victory as “a November gift.”
“Republicans are quick to point out that the Carter campaign rooted for Reagan in 1980, and thought he’d be easy to defeat, too,” he continued. “Nonetheless, I have to say that more than a few Republican leaders are very nervous about Newt as the nominee. It’s not just his baggage. They think he’d say and do enough outrageous things before November to self-destruct, as he has done before. Again — maybe, maybe not. But it’s a risk, for sure.”
There has always been a tension inside Gingrich between “Good Newt,” the sometimes visionary and thoughtful Republican leader who transformed the political map during his time in Congress, and “Bad Newt,” the undisciplined and ego-driven politician prone to making erratic policy statements and alienating his colleagues.
Gingrich’s political history, Politico recently noted, is in many ways the story of this internal struggle. “Good Newt” led the GOP’s historic takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994 and forced President Bill Clinton to the political center. “Bad Newt” resigned from Congress five years later as one of the most unpopular public figures in American life.
This election season, “Good Newt” has clearly articulated an attractive conservative message in debates, while “Bad Newt” has already compared his stature to that of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, said his efforts in Congress helped lead to the collapse of Communism and declared that he will no doubt become the GOP nominee.
In addition, Gingrich’s colorful personal life — his multiple divorces and affairs, his work on behalf of special interests — would almost certainly become a major issue in a general election against Obama.
Veteran Republican strategist Mike Murphy, who has worked with Romney in the past but is staying unaffiliated this election, told TheDC that these factors make the White House “obviously very excited about the idea of Newt as the nominee.”
“It would be like winning the lottery for them,” he said.
Prominent Democrats have not been taking pains to keep their excitement over a Gingrich candidacy secret. Retiring Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank recently said he’d “never thought I’d live such a good life that I would see Newt Gingrich be the nominee of the Republican party,” a statement seconded by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Sen. Tom Harkin, the long-serving Democrat from Iowa, told reporters last week that Gingrich winning the Republican nomination would be “heaven sent.”
“Newt has never been one to engage mind before opening mouth,” he said on a conference call. “He engages mouth before engaging his mind sometimes, most of the time. That doesn’t bode well for him at all. I think there’s some, what I’m picking up around here is there’s a lot of quiet, silent cheering in the Obama administration and the Obama campaign for Newt to get the nomination. It would be just be heaven-sent if he got the nomination.”
Harkin continued: “Someone once described the prospect of Newt getting the nomination, saying that, ‘Imagine that you’re standing in front of a door and behind that door all these suitcases are piled and you open the door and all the suitcases come tumbling out.’ Of course, I didn’t know what they were talking about. He said, ‘Baggage, he has a lot of baggage and once he gets up there all that baggage comes tumbling out.'”
David “Mudcat” Saunders, a Democratic strategist, told TheDC that the left’s enthusiasm for Gingrich stems from polls showing strong support for Romney in swing states. Saunders said that Romney’s perceived moderation, a liability in the primaries, is likely to help him draw the support of independents the GOP needs to defeat Obama.
“In the General, the swing state numbers obviously are the only ones that mean anything. The [Democrats] don’t like looking at those numbers,” against Romney, he said.
Saunders added that, if he were involved in the Obama campaign, he would try to inject “blood in the water” by providing Romney’s political opponents talking points, something the DNC’s “flip-flopper” ads seem designed to accomplish.
“Obama’s goal is to air as many early damaging attacks as possible on Romney because this accomplishes two goals,” Sabato said. “It weakens Romney with all voters in case he’s the nominee, and it especially causes him problems with GOP base voters who already question Mitt’s flip-flops. Thus, Obama gains either way. Romney is a wounded nominee, or a much weaker candidate (in the White House’s view), Gingrich, gets the GOP nod.”
Unsurprisingly, some Republican strategists don’t buy into the idea that Obama would fair better against Gingrich in the general election. Mary Matalin, an aide to both President George H.W. Bush and his son George W. Bush, told TheDC she’s skeptical any Republican hopeful would have trouble winning the White House.
The DNC’s anti-Romney ads, Matalin said, are designed “just to stoke their rabid base, to keep the focus off the administration’s abysmal record, to show they are out there fighting, since all they can do is (negative) campaign, as the president has clearly given up governing.”
Matalin said the ads weren’t intended to sway the Republican primary electorate one way or the other because “no GOP primary voter is going to be moved by what Obama campaign does now.” Moreover, she said, should Romney become the nominee the “flip-flopping” charge would be “ineffective” because Republican voters will have already discounted it and “independents are in solid opposition to Obama policies and think all politicians are phonies.”
“As for Newt, if they are putting out that they are cheering, you can infer the opposite,” she continued. “This president cannot win against a solid, articulated conservative message, and he knows it. In a clear contrast campaign, no matter how hard he tries to demonize the messenger, the message will prevail, as it has in both the off year and mid-term elections.”