Awkward debate performances, shiftiness around his personal wealth and tax record, and a proper shellacking in Saturday’s South Carolina primary: meet Mitt Romney, the Republican party establishment’s favoured candidate to go up against President Barack Obama in November 2012.
Our Washington correspondent Konrad Yakabuski has written about the unfolding clash between the GOP grassroots – which, in South Carolina, moved in droves behind the candidacy of Newt Gingrich – and the party elite.
As the leadership contest moves to Florida, where Republicans vote on January 31st, here are five things to watch in Mr. Romney’s counterattack ahead of the next primary.
Throwing the ‘baggage’
“Newt has a ton of baggage,” says the narrator in the latest version of a TV attack ad funded by Romney supporters.
The line of attack worked wonders in Iowa to reverse Mr. Gingrich’s December surge by drawing attention to Mr. Gingrich’s 1997 ethics violation during his tenure as speaker of the House of Representatives, the $1.6-million he is alleged to have received for his work as a consultant to mortgage giant Freddie Mac ahead of the housing crisis, and the millions he made as a Washington D.C. lobbyist.
Mr. Romney has drawn some attention to these details about Mr. Gingrich’s track record during the New Hampshire and South Carolina campaigns.
But for the most part, he has allowed his surrogates to do that talking. In Florida, it will be a steady drum beat from Mr. Romney himself to sow doubt in the minds of voters about Mr. Gingrich’s character.
Speaking at a campaign event in Florida, he honed in on the state’s struggling homeowners and record foreclosures and tried to link it Mr. Gingrich.
“What was he doing at Freddie Mac? Because Freddie Mac figures in very prominently in the fact that people in Florida have seen home values go down – it’s time to turn that around!”
On Monday morning, Mr. Gingrich was quick with his own counterattack, asking that the records of his consulting contract with Freddie Mac be made public before the Florida primary.
Releasing the tax records
Mitt Romney’s loss in South Carolina had a lot to do with Newt Gingrich’s ability to connect with Republicans and electrify the GOP base during TV debates.
But Mr. Romney played a key part in his own misfortunes: his awkwardness around his own wealth and whether he would release his tax records was unmistakable during the debates, resulting in a rare moment where the audience booed Mr. Romney over his answer to a question about releasing his tax records.
But no one expects that by releasing the former businessman’s tax records, which the campaign says it will do on Tuesday, will settle the questions about Mr. Romney’s wealth and business record.
There will be even further scrutiny over Mr. Romney’s low tax rate and how it squares with the higher tax rate paid by millions of middle-class Americans.
During a week when most of the attention focused on Mr. Gingrich’s alleged offer of an “open marriage” to his second wife, ABC News was also hitting Mr. Romney hard over the millions of dollars in personal wealth he has invested in funds in the Cayman Islands, which is known as a tax haven.
Expect the questions about Mr. Romney’s wealth to be as detailed as his tax records.
When he was the front-runner, Mitt Romney could focus his strongest line of attack on President Obama. He looked presidential, and voters in New Hampshire highlighted the importance of his electability in a contest against the president.
There is a delicate balance Mr. Romney will have to strike this week: attacking Mr. Gingrich on his character and leadership track record while delivering equally sharp lines against Mr. Obama.
The Romney camp hopes to showcase their candidate’s presidential qualities in a “pre-buttal” speech in Florida on Tuesday ahead of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address.
Expect Mr. Romney to, once again, return to the themes outlined in his previous front-runner speeches: President Obama ran on “lofty promises” and failed to deliver.
“The president has run out of ideas. Now he’s running out of excuses,” Mr. Romney told a New Hampshire audience on January 10 in a speech in which he ignored his GOP rivals.
Unleashing the Super Pac
Super PACs are the new fundraising vehicles that are transforming the 2012 leadership race, allowing these political action committees to raise unlimited money to run ads supporting a candidate so long as their is no coordination between the candidate’s campaign and the Super PAC.
“Restore our Future” is the pro-Romney Super PAC that has already spent $7.3-million on TV ads in Florida. No other Super PAC that is aligned to the other candidates has spent anything close to that amount.
“Winning our Future,” the pro-Gingrich Super PAC, would have to spend $2-million to blanket the various media markets in Florida with their own TV ads.
The bottom line is that Mr. Romney’s campaign and the surrogates who are supporting him have a massive organizational and financial advantage.
But Mr. Romney is not just looking to win Florida, he is looking to raise $10-million for the battles after Florida.
“This is a hard fight because there’s so much worth fighting for,” Mr. Romney said in South Carolina primary night speech, “and we’ve still got a long way to go.”
Debate, debate, debate
Mitt Romney will share the stage with the remaining candidates in two televised debates on Monday and Thursday nights, the first in Tampa at the University of South Florida moderated by Brian Williams on NBC, and the second in Jacksonville at the University of North Florida moderated by Wolf Blitzer on CNN.
Mr. Romney is not going to win any awards for his debating style: he comes across as polished and presidential, but lacks the ability to connect with the audience the way Mr. Gingrich can.
But all the emphasis on Mr. Gingrich’s debate performance is beginning to get under Mr. Romney’s skin.
“We’re not choosing a talk show host, all right? We’re choosing a leader, we’re choosing the person who should be the leader of the free world,” Mr. Romney said to a Florida audience after his trouncing in South Carolina.
Those are fighting words. But make no mistake – debates are crucial. The New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries offered the same conclusion: debates were a key factor in deciding how people voted.
Mr. Romney is going have to come across as comfortable when talking about his personal wealth and business record, and as someone who has the fire to win the GOP nomination and lead the party.
Crucially, he will have to take the fight to Mr. Gingrich directly, on the debate stage.