Mission Possible

Paul Begala on Romney’s Desperate Dive to the Right in the Arizona Debate

Mitt Romney managed the seemingly impossible task of outflanking Rick Santorum from the right.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Mitt Romney came into the CNN debate in Arizona with one clear objective: get to the right of Rick Santorum wherever you can. Amazingly, he seemed to have succeeded.

Romney, who voted for liberal Democrat Paul Tsongas for president, attacked Santorum for supporting his then-moderate Republican Senate partner, Arlen Specter.

Romney, who personally attended a Planned Parenthood fundraiser in 1994, attacked Santorum for voting for Title X, which provides federal funding for contraceptives.

Romney, who got a federal subsidy for the Salt Lake City Olympics, attacked Santorum for supporting earmarks in the Senate.

And Romney, who once supported comprehensive immigration reform, including "beginning the process of applying for citizenship and establishing legal status,” has moved so far to the fringe that in the Mesa debate he called the draconian Arizona immigration law a "model" for the United States. Ay caramba.

Ron Paul seemed more energetic than usual, and aptly summed himself up in one word: "consistent." But his position on Iran is so far outside the mainstream of both political parties as to be disqualifying.

Newt Gingrich, too, played to type. He bashed what he called "the elite media," used adjectives like "fundamental," and descended into crazy demagoguery, asserting that "if you're an enemy of America, you're safe" under President Obama. (Was he on a Mediterranean cruise when our president gave orders to kill Osama bin Laden and 22 of the top 30 al Qaeda leaders?)

But the main event was Santorum versus Romney. Santorum was clearly thrilled to be in the spotlight. But he spent way too much time splitting hairs and explaining the protocol and procedures of Washington in defense of earmarks and defending his support for Specter. As he has done in the past, he couldn’t resist picking a gratuitous fight with Ron Paul. That's called punching down, and it rarely works. He played too much defense and too little offense. His job should have been to use every opportunity to define Romney as a feckless liberal and himself as a principled conservative. He didn’t accomplish that.

It was Romney who doggedly stuck to his game plan—no matter how preposterous he looked. Trying to get to the right of Santorum is like trying to get to the left of Trotsky. At one level you have to admire Romney's audacity. And in tactical terms Mitt's breathtaking, desperate dive to the right might be enough to win him the nomination. But the tactic that wins him the nomination may well be what kills him strategically in the general election.

The moderate, independent swing voters who will choose the next president do not want to ban funding for contraception. They do not want to demonize undocumented workers, nationalize the Arizona immigration law, or kill the Dream Act. Romney, therefore, is on a fool's errand. He can never make the right-wing base love him. But he just might make the moderate middle hate him.