It's Not Too Late to Go Negative on Mitt Romney

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The GOP front-runner is racing toward a presidential hat trick in South Carolina, and there's only one way to stop him.

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Barring a political Chernobyl, Mitt Romney tonight will become the first Republican in the history of contested primaries to win both Iowa and New Hampshire. This "weak" frontrunner will have many people to thank -- his staff, his strapping sons, those people he doesn't know who produced that SuperPAC ad he happened to catch once but can recite verbatim. And yet, nobody deserves more credit than Romney's opponents, who have run the most flaccid and ineffective primary campaigns in memory.

Conventional wisdom holds that Romney entered this race with big problems (a private equity background, passing Obamacare in Massachusetts, a failed presidential bid just four years ago, an anemic economic record as governor, personal awkwardness, a parade of apparent policy flips). But he is still on top, the pundits say, because only weak candidates decided to oppose him. Really? Think about who these guys were before the campaign began: for more than a decade, Rick Perry was the dominant politician in the biggest GOP state, Newt Gingrich was the first Republican House speaker in forty years, Jon Huntsman -- Mandarin speaker, China and Singapore ambassador -- was the governor who presided over the fastest job growth in America, Rick Santorum was a hero of the cultural right who represented majority-Democrat constituents in Congress for 16 years.

While all four have had major problems making an affirmative case for themselves, none of that (save Perry's "oops") has mattered as much as their inability to go negative effectively. Nobody has sustained a coherent and compelling argument against Romney as the party's next nominee. This does not mean blurting out the occasional spontaneous potshot at a debate. It means driving a consistent message for weeks before election day, at every candidate forum and campaign event. It means launching an immediate response to any Romney attack. It means understanding the history of presidential primaries -- and learning lessons from those who have done this before.

In 1984, Walter Mondale defeated a surging Gary Hart with a relentless focus on his challenger's shape-shifting and inconsistency. "Where's the beef?" was a cute line--but it was only a small part of a comprehensive anti-Hart effort that included the first-ever "red phone" ad on television.

In 1988, George Bush Sr. was on the ropes after Bob Dole pulled off an upset in Iowa. Bush battled back in New Hampshire with a relentless focus on his challenger's shape-shifting and inconsistency. "Senator Straddle" became part of the lexicon. Bush launched a negative spot that included an actor dressed as Dole doing flips on conservative issues.

In 2000, Al Gore, then the incumbent vice president, actually raised less money than former senator Bill Bradley and was falling behind him in the polls. Gore retook the lead with (what else) a relentless focus on his challenger's shape-shifting and inconsistency. After the GOP took Congress in 1994, Gore said he decided to "stay and fight" but his opponent "walked away" by retiring from Washington. Gore noted (and repeated) that Bradley attacked Bill Clinton, endorsed a Republican Medicare reform, and even pondered an independent presidential run in 1996. Iowa Democrats were besieged by mail and yard signs that said "Stay and Fight." Gore used that contrast in every debate and every interview. He beat Bradley two-to-one in the caucuses and the former senator never recovered.

That same year, John McCain walloped George W. Bush in New Hampshire. Amazingly enough, Bush came back with a relentless focus on his challenger's shape-shifting and inconsistency. My opponent may say he's a reformer, Bush said, but CHAIRMAN McCain is a Washington, D.C., insider who surrounds himself with lobbyists and supported campaign finance legislation that hurt the conservative cause. Governor Bush became "a reformer with results," "a real reformer," "a consistent conservative." He also became the Republican nominee.

While it is interesting to speculate what might have been had one of Romney's opponents (or their highly-paid genius campaign gurus) thought to try this approach, it may not be too late. There is still South Carolina on January 21. The Palmetto primary has earned its reputation as the opposite of Iowa Nice. Veteran South Carolina pol Alex Sanders put it well: "Our voters like their politics the way they like their rice: spicy, greased up, and nasty as hell." But that election is the last chance for anyone-but-Romney: since South Carolina emerged as a major contest in 1980, its winner has always become the Republican nominee.

Image credit: YouTube/"Anyone Voting for Romney?"

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Brian Goldsmith is a contributor to TheAtlantic.com. A former political producer for the CBS Evening News, he is now a student at Stanford Law School.

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