Have Democrats Succeeded in Pre-Destroying Romney?

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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."

After Democrats have framed his visit with one of those ubiquitous local-angle conference calls, they often station party officials and members outside events to protest and talk to the media. Here, for example, is a local Minneapolis television station's report on the group of seniors, accompanied by the city's mayor, who held signs saying "Keep Your Mitt(s) Off My Social Security!" outside his event there Wednesday.

The groups also police Romney's speeches for potential contradictions, circulating instantly any damaging information and trumpeting every would-be gaffe. When Romney on Wednesday said he was "not concerned with the very poor," the spin machine sprang into action -- though the media by this point was so well-primed for the latest hyperventilating iteration of "Mitt Romney, Out of Touch Rich Guy" that they hardly needed to.

The Obama campaign is an enthusiastic player of this game, too. On Wednesday, it was circulating a four-page memo from Deputy Campaign Manager Stephanie Cutter making the argument "Mitt Romney's Negative Campaign is Backfiring." And as the president was releasing new policies to help homeowners, the DNC issued a document explicitly framing Obama's proposals as a rejoinder to Romney's.

Romney's team wears the attacks as a badge of honor -- proof that the opposition views Romney as the most formidable opponent. "The last thing Democrats want is to have to face Mitt Romney in a general election," Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said. "Rather than focusing on job creation and helping the middle class, President Obama and his allies are focused on attacking Mitt Romney."

In the best-case scenario for the Democrats, they would torpedo Romney's candidacy so effectively that even Republicans would sour on him, handing another candidate the nomination instead. But they'll settle for merely cementing negative impressions -- flip-flopper, right-winger, plutocratic elitist -- so that by the time Romney accepts the nomination in August, these perceptions are unalterably baked in.

Is there a potential downside to this strategy? It's possible the Democrats' attacks have already elevated him and bolstered his electability argument by making him the president's de facto opponent. There's also a chance the constant drumbeat could even end up inoculating Romney: Maybe voters will have heard he's a phony so many times by the fall that they'll begin to tune it out.

The Democrats have decided it's worth that risk. And they believe their furious efforts are having an effect.

"I've been happy with some of the criticisms we've been able to land on Romney, because I think it starts the debate," said Rodell Mollineau, president of American Bridge 21st Century, which focuses on tracking and opposition research. He pointed to the group's work highlighting Romney's various inartful comments about money, from "corporations are people" to "I like firing people."

"They're smaller things, but I think after a while we've been able to add them up," Mollineau said. "It all funnels into that narrative that he is the guy that's not on the side of the middle class."

The modern media landscape allows limitless venues for this type of information, from social media to a novel crops of online news outlets and the partisan blogosphere, he noted. "You can start to shape the narrative earlier, so when you do get to the general election, those narratives are already there," he said.

And Mollineau was unapologetic about the focus on Romney. "They all have their flaws," he said of the other GOP candidates. "But when you're the front-runner, you're going to get more scrutiny. You just are."

Image credit: Getty Images/Stephen Maturen

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

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