Much has been made of Mitt Romney’s religion, but if there’s one commandment to which he has shown utter devotion this election cycle it’s the one championed by GOP god Ronald Reagan: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”
Romney, the frontrunner in the Republican presidential primary, has spent the past several months avoiding sandbox fights with his fellow Grand Old Partiers, opting instead to aim his rhetorical firepower at President Obama. But while the strategy has solidified his position as spokesman of the establishment right, Romney’s campaign has always known that the Republican field would eventually produce a serious challenger. Now, it seems, his main competition has emerged: Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.
A national Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday showed Bachmann gaining on Romney, winning the support of 14 percent of Republican-leaning primary voters (compared with Romney’s 24 percent). In many ways, Bachmann is the perfect anti-Mitt candidate. A fiery Tea Party hero with a folksy demeanor and strong ties to the religious right, she stands in stark contrast with Romney, a practicing Mormon and buttoned-down manager type who has spent much of his career in private equity. If the GOP really is in the midst of a civil war, you’d be hard pressed to find a pair of candidates who more precisely represent the party’s dueling philosophies.
Now the question for Team Romney is, “How do we beat her?”
A Romney spokeswoman declined to comment for this story, but sources close to the campaign say there’s no question the frontrunner’s team sees Bachmann as a threat.
“I think they view her as a significant opponent,” says Chuck Warren, a national political consultant who has frequent contact with the Romney campaign but is not affiliated with it. He adds, “I think they believe it is still early, but take her seriously.”
Seriously enough that they've conceptualized a plan to defuse her. Contacted by The Daily Beast, campaign insiders and prominent Romney boosters described the candidate’s “Bachmann strategy.”
1. Expose Her Economic Inexperience
“I don’t know what they’ll say publicly,” says Warren, “but from my conversations with people in the campaign, I think they feel Romney has a very unique set of skills that gives him an opportunity to show voters he can help turn around the economy. Bachmann doesn’t have those skills.”
(Update: Following this story's initial publication, a Romney aide told The Daily Beast that Warren does not speak for the campaign and isn't privvy to its stategy.)
Indeed, Bachmann’s résumé has little in the way of managerial experience or business expertise. Before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, she spent her career practicing tax law and taking on social issues like same-sex marriage in Minnesota’s state legislature. The Romney campaign is hoping to brand its candidate as the economic expert in the race while setting up Bachmann as the crusading culture warrior. Its bet is that, faced with a choice between the two, Republican voters will side with the guy who can balance a checkbook and put their neighbors back to work.
“[Bachmann] has been a great woman, a great mom, and a great attorney, but she hasn’t done what Romney’s done, which is to create companies,” says Warren, summarizing the campaign’s case for Romney. “I’ve never seen a tax attorney go and create anything except a loophole.”
2. Maintain the High Road
It’s a great line, but not one you’re likely to hear Romney deliver. That’s because his campaign hopes to keep him above the primary fray for as long as possible. Reached by The Daily Beast for comment, a campaign spokeswoman emailed quotes from two different articles in which Romney compliments Bachmann.
“I think she is a very strong contender,” he told reporters last month. “She is an excellent candidate. She is getting her message across and receiving good support. I have nothing but respect for her.”
The friendly approach extends to the candidate’s more prominent boosters, including Mark Hudson, an attorney and member of Romney’s Iowa leadership team. Asked what he thought of Bachmann, he responded simply, “My take on her is that Governor Romney is the best candidate.”
Compare that docile approach with ex-Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty’s Meet the Press appearance on Sunday. In an apparent last-ditch effort to kick his campaign into gear, Pawlenty blasted Bachmann, calling her record of accomplishments “nonexistent” and casting her as little more than a compelling speech giver.
At this point, Romney would gain little by engaging in Pawlenty-level attacks on Bachmann. But if she continues to gain on him in the polls, he may have to reconsider that strategy.
3. Let Her Win in Iowa
One campaign insider who requested anonymity to speak freely on the subject says Romney’s advisers know that some Republican primary voters will never pull the lever for Mitt. For many in the GOP, he’s too stiff, too elitist, or too Mormon to win their support—and it’s becoming increasingly likely that those people will get behind Bachmann.
Warren says that means Romney will likely have to surrender socially conservative early-voting states like Iowa, where Bachmann surpassed him for the first time in a recent poll. (Romney, who lost in the Hawkeye State in 2008 despite winning the influential Ames Straw Poll there, is hoping to maintain low expectations in regards to the caucuses and has so far kept his distance.)
Instead, says Warren, the campaign plans to focus on winning New Hampshire, a more moderate state where Romney lives part-time, and Nevada, where a significant portion of the electorate shares his Mormon faith.
Of course, whoever emerges the victor, Warren says, there is one potential result that could appease both camps: a Romney-Bachmann ticket.
“Whatever questions people have about Romney’s social bona fides, she would bring that in,” says Warren. “And at the same time, Romney helps with the fiscal issues. Everywhere I go I keep hearing that the two of them together would be powerful.”