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How Not to “Kill” Romney

Yesterday’s Politico report on the Obama campaign’s plan to “kill Romney” has had some interesting unintended consequences. While the premise of the president’s strategists is Mitt Romney is the Republican best placed to threaten the president’s re-election, their decision to leak their intention to do everything possible to destroy him has had the opposite effect.

Rather than scaring off Republicans who will hope to avoid the Democratic effort to brand him as “weird,” Romney has already used the attack as material for an effective campaign video and fundraiser titled “Civility.” Even more troubling for the president is that other journalists are beginning to pick up on the fact the “weird” charge is a thinly veiled incitement to religious prejudice.

The video begins with President Obama’s heralded call for a more civil public discourse, in a speech at the memorial ceremony in Arizona this past January for those killed during the attempt to assassinate Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. It then jumps forward to the Politico story and what the Romney campaign declares is a desperate attempt by the president to divert the electorate from a failing economy.

Though, as I noted yesterday, Romney’s record in business and flip-flopping on the issues gives opponents in both parties plenty of ammunition to use against him, the “weird” charge is likely to do Obama more harm than it does the former Massachusetts governor. While prejudice against Mormons is a factor that will affect Romney’s chances of becoming president, the willingness to play this card, even by inference, is a land mine that threatens to undermine Obama’s status as an iconic president. The blowback from this campaign can be incalculable, because it could transform Romney from a flawed challenger into a sympathetic victim of  White House smears.

While most journalists reacting to the Politico story concentrated on the hypocrisy of Obama going negative so early, the New York Times’ Ross Douthat also picked up on the prejudice behind the “weird” charge. As Douthat pointed out, the White House’s decision to model their attack on Romney on the GOP assault on 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry is off the mark. Republican attempts to undermine Kerry’s standing as a war hero and to paint him as an effete Francophile elitist made sense in 2004, because it was an election fought on the issues of war and peace. But appealing to anti-Mormon bias in 2012 will be irrelevant to a contest that will be decided on economic issues.

If the president’s strategists were seeking to weaken Romney, they will soon discover they have done just the opposite.