The Romney campaign is now turning its attacks on the GOP candidate, Rick Santorum, who poses a greater threat to the former Massachusetts governor than any so far. Will it work? Perhaps, though I doubt it will work as well as the attacks on Newt Gingrich. The criticisms of the former House speaker succeeded because they seemed to conform to reality, with Gingrich himself confirming concerns about his emotional state and erratic style. It won’t be as easy to portray Santorum as a faux conservative, especially when the charge is being leveled by Romney, who has his own history of deviations from conservative orthodoxy. There’s also a chance Romney’s tactics will begin to backfire (which is what the Santorum campaign is hoping for in putting out this ad).
At some point, though, Romney has to begin making an (effective) affirmative case for his nomination. That remains his chief weakness so far – the inability to tie his campaign to a great cause. Right now, Governor Romney’s reflex is to rely on his biography, to portray himself as a successful businessman, a competent fixer, and a man who has never worked a day in his life in Washington. That simply isn’t enough. Both John McCain and Bob Dole had far more vivid and moving life stories than Romney – and they were wiped out by Bill Clinton in 1996 and Barack Obama in 2008.
The temptation will be to rely on the Romney Death Star to do to Santorum what it has done to others. And it may work. But one can sense a growing weariness within the GOP with this approach. Romney is a smart and able man. If he believes he would be a better president than Rick Santorum (and Barack Obama), as he clearly does, then he has to find a way to make that case. He could, for example, make a persuasive case that he is the person best equipped to reform public institutions that were designed for the needs of the mid-20th century. (Our health-care and entitlement system, tax code, schools, infrastructure, immigration policies, and regulatory regime are outdated, worn down, and insanely out of touch with the needs of our time.) Playing off the line attributed to Chekhov, that you don’t become a saint through other people’s sins, the Romney campaign needs to operate from the awareness that you don’t become the GOP nominee through Rick Santorum’s earmarks or his votes to raise the debt ceiling.
Republican voters want more than that, and they are right to want it.