Mitt Romney's Strategy To Sideline Rick Santorum: A Steady Rebuild And A Slow Burn

WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney's response to his most difficult challenge yet as a presidential candidate is slowly emerging as a cautious, multi-step process.

Republican voter resistance to the former Massachusetts governor has proven deeper and more durable than many thought possible, and he is now faced with a surging conservative, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who is not as easily undermined as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

A big part of Romney's problem is that he has already developed a reputation as a slash-and-burn candidate, who has responded to two Gingrich momentum jolts by obliterating the Georgian with overwhelming force on the TV airwaves. The second part of his challenge is that his public criticisms of Santorum on earmarks have so far been weak and ineffective.

But over the past few days, the contours of Romney's new game plan have emerged. It's a steady rebuild and a slow burn. Romney is building himself back up by talking more about his biography and by intensifying his focus on policy. At the same time, a steady trickle of unflattering nuggets about Santorum have begun to appear in the press, chipping away at his clean image.


Romney's battle royale with Gingrich in Florida seriously damaged both candidates. Romney won the Sunshine State and tore Gingrich apart so systematically that the former speaker of the House was reduced to shooting wildly at anything that moved. But it also took Romney badly off message. He wasn't talking about what he'd do if elected anymore. He looked neither serious nor substantive.

Romney's negatives skyrocketed, including among independent voters. And now Santorum leads Romney in both national polls and in surveys of Michigan voters, where a loss for Romney on Feb. 28 could do real damage to his candidacy.

Romney has pivoted back toward serious policy over the past week. He has focused in particular on Medicare, where he is the only remaining GOP candidate to have proposed his own detailed plan on how to overhaul the system and make it solvent. Medicare is only a line or two on the websites of Santorum and Gingrich, though both favor the general outline of Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to move the retirement benefits system toward more of a voucher approach.

Romney also has a reported tax reform package in the works.

Romney made sure to talk about entitlements in his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday, and when President Barack Obama released his budget Monday, Romney criticized the lack of focus on the nation's debt and the lack of a plan to put Medicare and Social Security on more secure footing.

"I believe we can save Social Security and Medicare with a few common sense reforms, and -- unlike President Obama -- I'm not afraid to put them on the table," Romney said.

The Romney campaign also rehashed praise for their candidate's entitlement plan from November, from Ryan and others, and sent that to reporters on Monday.

The Obama campaign did not miss a chance to engage on the issue.

"Mitt Romney calls his cuts to Social Security and Medicare common sense," said Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for Obama's reelection campaign. "But, his proposal to end Medicare as we know it and gut Social Security in order to fund massive tax cuts for millionaires, billionaires, and large corporations won’t sound like 'common sense' to most Americans."

In addition to the policy focus, Romney is talking about himself more. And it's not about his 42-year marriage to Ann Romney, a contrast he used to highlight Gingrich's three marriages. It's about who Romney is as a person.

Romney's CPAC speech was the beginning of a new initiative to persuade the GOP's conservative base that he is at least like them, even if he's not one of them. It's the subtle admissions that he's not from the same stock -- he told CPAC he hadn't read Frederick Hayek or Edmund Burke -- that the Romney campaign hopes will lend a bit more authenticity to the candidate's profile.

His focus on his biography is Romney's way of telling conservatives he shares their values, even if he doesn't read the same books.

"My path to conservatism came from my family, from my faith and from my life's work," Romney said, another nod to differences between him and the GOP base on religion. Romney's Mormon faith is viewed suspiciously by a good number of Protestants.

Romney's op-ed in the Detroit News Tuesday was another attempt to humanize him.

"I am a son of Detroit," he wrote. "I grew up drinking Vernors and watching ballgames at Michigan & Trumbull."

And the campaign's TV ad that went on the air in Michigan Tuesday showed Romney driving himself around Detroit and talking about "going to the Detroit Auto Show with my dad."

Romney cast his economic message in personal terms, arguing that liberal policies have caused cities' tough times: "Michigan has been my home and this is personal," he said in the ad.

Romney's numbers among independents have already begun to rebound, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll Tuesday.


The positivity is not just meant to improve Romney's image.

"Positive ads work best when they are used to set up attacks or contrasts," wrote Stuart Stevens, Romney's chief campaign strategist, in his book about the 2000 presidential campaign: "The Big Enchilada."

And the attacks are coming. The primary super PAC supporting Romney, Restore Our Future, has bought $1.5 million in air time in eight states holding upcoming primaries, according to Real Clear Politics. About $640,000 of that will be in Michigan. If Romney loses the Great Lakes State's Feb. 28 primary to Santorum, he will face real doubts about whether he can become the nominee.

The seeds of soon-to-appear attack ads against Santorum were introduced into the media from several directions on Tuesday. Whether they came directly from the Romney campaign is not known, though Stevens himself stood in the lobby of the Marriott Wardman Park on Friday afternoon after Romney's speech rattling off Santorum's vulnerabilities.

"He's made more deals than eBay," Stevens said.

There were at least four different takedowns of Santorum in the press on Tuesday. The most personal, and potentially harmful, was the reemergence of a 1999 story about Santorum and his wife, Karen, suing a chiropractor for $500,000 after her back was injured during treatment.

Santorum had previously co-sponsored a bill "limiting medical malpractice lawsuits to $250,000 in non-economic damages," according to ABC News.

From the right, the Washington Examiner wrote about Santorum's support for milk subsidies and earmarks, and the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin wrote about the potentially distortive impact of Santorum's manufacturing tax credit.

And Time revisited Santorum comments on contraception from last fall that could raise doubts about his viability in a general election, where the devout Roman Catholic said he would "get rid of any idea that you have to have abortion coverage or contraceptive coverage”

Many in the Christian faith have said, 'Well, that’s OK. Contraception's OK,'" Santorum said in October. "It's not OK because it's a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be. They’re supposed to be within marriage, they are supposed to be for purposes that are, yes, conjugal, but also [inaudible], but also procreative."

Santorum was asked about these comments during his appearance Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," and said his view on contraception was a personal one that he would not try to impose on the country if elected president.

"What I've talked about it with respect is my Catholic faith, which, you know, I, I agree with the Catholic Church on the issue of contraception," Santorum said. "That's a different position than I have with respect to public policy. You know, public policy, women should have access to contraception. I have no problem with that at all."

There are more whacks at Santorum to come, but his top communications adviser, Hogan Gidley, wasn't taking them lying down when he spoke to The Huffington Post.

Gidley called Romney a "champion of Obama values" and said that Romney's attempts to win over a large portion of the Republican party at this stage in the primary was a bad sign for him.

"If I'm trying to sell you that I'm a conservative this late in the game, then we got a problem," Gidley said.

He has a point, but the Romney campaign is betting that their execution and resources will create doubt about Santorum, and that Romney himself can do just enough convincing on his own. They've been here before, with Gingrich, but also with former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who looked hard to beat at moments after he first got into the race in August.

But so far, Romney has been unable to push his candidacy over the top. And if he can't do that soon, he may lose his chance to be the party's nominee.