Have Democrats Succeeded in Pre-Destroying Romney?

Inside the left's little-noticed, relentless, brutally effective campaign to tear down the Republican front-runner in advance of the general election.

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Tuesday's installment of the left's crusade to destroy Mitt Romney began like this: an operator chirping, "I'd like to welcome you today to the Mitt Romney Would Destroy Social Security and Medicare Conference Call."

A few moments later, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, was on the line. "Thanks, everybody, for joining the call today," she began. Within minutes, she had accused Romney of "political pandering," supporting "the extreme tea party agenda," and lying to senior citizens, Hispanics and supporters of the space program.

Just another day in the life of the vast left-wing conspiracy.

Practically every day for months, Democrats and their allies have been hammering Romney like this. Unions, party committees at the national and state levels, independent groups such as American Bridge and Americans United for Change, and the Obama campaign itself have undertaken an unprecedented effort to tarnish the front-runner while virtually ignoring the rest of the GOP candidates. And it appears to be working.

Even as he finds increasing success in the Republican primary, negative views of Romney have skyrocketed, particularly among independents, according to recent polls. An ABC News/Washington Post survey released last week, for example, found Romney viewed unfavorably by 49 percent of voters and favorably by just 31 percent. Among independents, just 23 percent viewed Romney favorably, compared to 51 percent who felt that way about President Obama.

One emerging strain of the conventional wisdom holds that it's the harsh attacks on Romney from Newt Gingrich -- and blowback from Romney's own brutally negative campaign -- that's causing this to happen. Democrats have been pushing this line, in fact, arguing that Romney is winning at a steep cost and will limp into the general election bruised beyond repair.

But the left's less-noticed but relentless campaign to tear Romney down surely deserves much of the credit, or blame, as well. In stark contrast to Romney's Republican rivals, the liberal groups have been focused, organized, and speaking directly to independent voters.

In Florida, for example, AFSCME, the public workers union, spent nearly $1 million on a television campaign meant to associate Romney with the state's unpopular Republican governor, Rick Scott, according to TPM. Another union, the Service Employees International Union, teamed up with Priorities USA Action, a super PAC supporting Obama, to broadcast radio ads targeting the Hispanic community in the state.

On Wednesday, the group announced it was expanding what it said was a "six-figure" ad buy to Nevada -- the Hispanic-heavy swing state that is the site of the next Republican contest on Saturday.

"There's been a lot of chatter about whether the extended primary is doing damage to whoever the nominee is," Bill Burton, the former Obama White House staffer who heads Priorities, argued on yet another Romney-vilifying conference call. (A political reporter could spend all day on these calls, at least until she collapsed from a lethal dose of overheated rhetoric.) "But I would say the damage is already done. If you look at what Mitt Romney has done just in the first three states...his problems are already enormous."

The point, noted the union's secretary-treasurer, Eliseo Medina, is not the primaries but what comes next.

"The key date for us is in November," he said. "What we're doing is educating the community to the positions that this candidate, Mitt Romney, was taking as he sought our votes. Mitt Romney's going to find this little anchor placed around his neck getting heavier and heavier."

Remember when Herman Cain blamed the "Democrat machine" for his campaign-ending sex scandal? There is indeed a left of center machine bent on destroying a single candidate -- but Cain has never been the one they were after. Everywhere Romney goes, the assault awaits him. The DNC partners with state Democratic parties to "welcome" Romney to each state he travels to; on Wednesday, it was the majority leader of the Nevada state senate calling him a "corporate raider."

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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