Mitt Romney attacked Rick Santorum tonight for agreeing with George W. Bush.
But Romney did not criticize Santorum for supporting the Iraq War, Medicare Part D, increasing the budget deficit, or No Child Left Behind. Instead, he attacked Santorum for an even greater sin among primary voters: supporting an incumbent Republican senator.
Romney laid into Santorum for supporting his erstwhile Senate colleague in Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter, in his highly competitive 2004 Republican primary against then-Rep. Pat Toomey. In Romney’s eyes, that makes Santorum responsible for the passage of “Obamacare” on the crucial 60th vote cast by Specter, who later defected to the Democratic Party to avoid losing a primary rematch against Toomey, who nonetheless took the seat in 2010.
Santorum defended his support for his colleague as “the right thing for our country,” saying it ensured Judiciary Committee approval of all of George W. Bush’s Supreme Court nominees. But the logic of Santorum’s endorsement seems even more straightforward. Specter, while a liberal Republican, was still a guaranteed winner in a general election in the increasingly Democratic Keystone State (which John Kerry won in 2004). It seemed far more pragmatic to guarantee the election of a powerful Republican, even one prone to veering from the party line, rather than risking a Senate seat in a chamber then split by a bare one-vote margin.
Romney, though, used the attack to try and preempt attacks on his two biggest weaknesses compared with Santorum, his inconsistency on social issues and his Massachusetts health-care plan. By hitting Santorum for supporting a pro-choice senator who supported “Obamacare,” he aimed to neutralize that line of attack by following the famous Karl Rove strategy of attacking an opponent on his strengths, not his weaknesses.
The problem for Romney is that this issue is a weakness for him as well.
The former Massachusetts governor in 1994 boasted of not being a Republican during “Reagan/Bush,” has voted in a Democratic presidential primary, and has accepted support from a range of ideological apostates, including Bill Weld, also a former GOP governor of Massachusetts but one who endorsed Barack Obama and has stood for office as a libertarian. During his tenure in Beacon Hill, Romney took pains to show his partnership with Democratic leaders in the legislature, even boasting about it on the trail. He neglected to mention that both of the speakers of the House he worked with during his tenure, Thomas Finneran and Sal DiMasi, were later found guilty of felonies in federal court.
The debate was not the first time in this cycle that Santorum has faced this line of attack. In Iowa, anonymous fliers, purportedly from “Iowans for Life,” attacked Santorum for supporting Specter as well as for campaigning on behalf of a pro-choice Republican, Christie Todd Whitman, who was governor of New Jersey in the 1990s. The Romney campaign seems eager to press this attack, sending out a press release during the debate whacking Santorum for his support of Specter, prominently featuring a quote from the conservative advocacy group the Club for Growth. However, the release does not mention that Toomey, Specter’s primary opponent, followed his defeat by taking charge of the Club for Growth.
But Romney should be careful. These fliers were found outside countless Santorum events in the Hawkeye State and didn’t dent Santorum’s support among social conservatives in Iowa in the slightest. There’s no reason to expect the attack to be any more effective in Michigan or Arizona.