Mitt Romney’s CPAC Mini-Bounce

Ben Jacobs on Mitt's tough road ahead and which attacks against him will be hardest to overcome.

Mitt Romney won the CPAC straw poll on Saturday, showing new strength among the conservative activists, who, at times, have scorned him as a "RINO" (Republican in name only) in the course of the campaign. Edging out Rick Santorum, Romney’s campaign wasted little time blasting out a press release heralding the victory.

Little wonder. Wins have been scarce for the GOP frontrunner of late. He lost all three caucuses last Tuesday and has fallen 15 points behind the surging Santorum in the latest national poll. He is now viewed unfavorably by almost half of Americans, according to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll. The CPAC victory might help blunt Santorum’s momentum, but Romney still faces a rough road ahead to unite the party behind him, his organizational and money advantages notwithstanding.

Almost every day since last June, when Tim Pawlenty first debuted his stumbling attack on “Obamneycare,” Romney has been under attack. Since that first volley from Pawlenty (who is now a fervent supporter of the ex-Massachusetts governor), Romney has been under fire for flaws ranging from being a “timid Massachusetts moderate” to his role as the rapacious “King of Bain”—and those are just some of the attacks from Newt Gingrich alone. But if, as expected, Romney becomes the GOP nominee, how many of these attacks will stick? After all, certain attacks, like flip-flopping on social issues, carry far more weight among primary voters than they do among those in a general election. However, others like his gaffes stating that he’s “not concerned about the very poor” and his infamous $10,000 bet could linger.

Top Santorum strategist John Brabender thinks Romney’s conservative credentials have been muddied during the primary process. He thinks that Romney has been shown as unable to draw meaningful distinctions with Obama on the “core values” of the conservative movement. Romney is already actively trying to shore himself up with the base and rebut such skepticism. He used his speech at CPAC on Friday to try to reinforce his credentials as “severely conservative,” but his dismal performance among the most conservative voters in states holding presidential preference contests is a foreboding sign for the man who ran to John McCain’s right in 2008.

Others like Dan Schnur, the communications director on John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid who is currently director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, are less concerned at this stage of the primary. “If there are still negative ads run against [Romney] in May or June, that may begin to have an impact,” according to Schnur. “But right now the primary hasn’t yet had an effect on the general election.” However, he does think that Romney will be hurt by his own stumbles in talking about his wealth and economic policy, which to Schnur, are remarks that Romney would likely have made regardless. In fact, the former GOP strategist finds it intriguing that “someone so good at making money has such trouble talking about it. Most people who make gaffes say dumb things about everything; this is much more specialized.”

Doug Gross, a key Republican activist in Iowa and chair of Romney’s 2008 caucus campaign, agrees that Romney’s wounds have been self-inflicted. “The ads [of other candidates] haven’t done that much. [But Romney] himself has made damaging comments, and it will be impactful,” said Gross. He thinks that “it fosters a narrative that his opponents want to create and maintain in the course of the campaign—that he lacks authenticity.“ However, Gross cautions that this could still rebound to Romney’s benefit, depending on how well the campaign is able to deal with these comments. “They can act like an inoculation or a chronic disease.”

While Gross is unsure whether the attacks on Romney will help in the general election, Rick Wilson, a leading Republican consultant in Florida, is far more positive. He thinks with many of these attacks, Romney will “get to turn and say ‘asked and answered, we’ve covered this’” if becomes the nominee. They are “baked in the cake.” To Wilson, many of the attacks that Romney took, particularly from Newt Gingrich, “were such wild, flailing, haymaker punches that it reduced the credibility of some of the attacks.” In fact, they may even have strengthened his campaign among “a lot of conservatives, even though they weren’t at home with Mitt,” once the attacks started to center around “market capitalism.”

What may really harm Romney are not the attacks against him but the attacks he’s made on fellow Republicans. Tad Devine, a senior strategist for both Al Gore and John Kerry’s presidential campaigns, thinks the negative tone of the primary will hurt Romney in November. “I don’t think there have been a lot of negative ads, per se, run against Romney. He’s been the guy running most of the negative ads,” said Devine. He finds agreement on this aspect of the campaign with Brabender, who believes that “instead of [being] a vision of hope, [Romney is] trying to bring people down.” To Devine, this particular method of running negative ads in a primary is “not a great way” to lay the groundwork for a general-election campaign. In fact, he thinks that the former Massachusetts governor has “left a mixed impression, even in places that he won” and that he has been the losing candidate in the primary “in a lot of ways.” (Although, admittedly those ways don’t include total votes or delegates). This loss is “reflected empirically in the decline in Romney’s favorable/unfavorable ratings.”

But that presumes voters actually get outraged by negative ads. As Wilson points out, “Voters know what’s coming, they’re big boys and girls,” and thinks that the effects of Romney's going so negative in the primary will be “unremarkable.” However, it’s clear from the polling that Romney’s prospects in a general election have suffered over the past few months. Whether the wounds are self-inflicted or the product of political combat, they are real. With a surging Rick Santorum, Romney will have to recover quickly lest the damage continue.