The former Massachusetts governor can expect a barrage of TV ads questioning his record. This week marks the beginning.
For now, the attacks on the Republican front-runner for president are mostly confined to snarky Internet videos, e-mails and Twitter posts.
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But the big-dollar war on Mitt Romney is coming, just as surely as winter. Millions of dollars raised by his Republican opponents and the so-called super PACS, as well as by groups on the extreme left and right of the political spectrum, will be hurled in his direction. In just an inkling of what's to come, rival Ron Paul started broadcasting television ads in Iowa and New Hampshire on Monday that smack Romney - along with Rick Perry and Herman Cain - for supporting the federal government's bailout of Wall Street that began under former President George W. Bush. And on Tuesday, the national Democratic party will begin airing a commercial in Arizona that assails Romney's recent comment about letting the foreclosure process "run its course and hit the bottom."
While the anti-Romney attacks are coming into focus, so is the primary calendar, allowing advertising budgets to be drawn up around the earliest nominating contests. The typically unflappable front-runner lost his cool for the first time in a nationally televised debate last week, when Perry brought up his former use of a landscaping company that employed illegal immigrants. Romney, red-faced and angry, seemed caught off guard.
Was that the glint of a glass jaw?
"People think he's headed for a coronation. But he's stuck at 20 to 25 percent in the polls and that's before everyone really starts gunning for him,'' said Adam Brandon, a spokesman for FreedomWorks, a prominent tea party group. "At some point, the inevitable nominee is going to look a lot less inevitable."
Perry on Monday also called in the cavalry, announcing that he had hired a team of Republican strategists known for their hardball tactics. And in an interview with CNBC he dubbed Romney a "fat cat," a caustic reference to Romney's personal wealth.
Romney's advantage is that he's prepared for the onslaught. He, and many Republican voters, have heard most of it before. Romney has been renouncing his previous support for abortion rights, for example, since he began running for president in 2007. The similarities between the health care law he signed as governor of Massachusetts and President Obama's plan have also been well-documented. "He's been vetted. A lot of this stuff has been asked and answered,'' said Republican consultant Kevin Madden, a prominent Romney ally in Washington.
What's more, when Romney gets hit, he hits back harder. When Perry criticized his health care record in an earlier debate, Romney was ready with a tough retort about the high number of uninsured children in Texas.
"We will continue to defend Mitt Romney's record as a conservative businessman versus career politicians and explain why he is best equipped to lead this nation and revive the economy,'' said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul.
Rivals in both parties are eagerly testing different messages to see what sticks. Supporters are confident that his record as a successful businessman in a campaign focused on the economy will trump any perceived blemishes. Here's an overview of some of the obvious lines of attack:
Responding to Perry's shot in the debate about the illegal immigrants who tended his lawn, Romney made a rare misstep. "I'm running for office, for Pete's sake, I can't have illegals,'' he recalled telling the landscaping company. That sound bite is bound for a lot of replays because it seems to support an unseemly narrative of Romney as a political opportunist.
"That theme is the most troubling for him, and it's a difficult charge for any political leader to deal with,'' said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who is advising an outside political group formed on GOP candidate Jon Huntsman's behalf.
Romney has drawn considerable flak for backing away from positions he took as a gubernatorial candidate in Democratic-leaning Massachusetts on abortion, gay rights, and gun control.
"He's been on three sides of every two-sided issue,'' said Republican strategist Bob Haus, chairman of Perry's campaign in Iowa. "It all points to his lack of authenticity, which is the cause of his biggest problems."
Perhaps the biggest strike against Romney is the health insurance program he spearheaded in Massachusetts, which like Obama's subsequent law, included an "individual mandate'' requiring people to buy insurance. Romney has drawn distinctions between his plan and "Obamacare'' and vowed to repeal the federal plan if elected. Less well-known is his support for the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, the bank bailout maligned by tea party conservatives that is the focus of the new Paul ad. Along with a shorter spot that touts Paul's plans to balance the federal budget, spokesman Jesse Benton said, the campaign will spend more than $1 million over the next two and a half weeks in Iowa and New Hampshire.
"I think some of the steam has gone out of 'Obamacare," Benton said, explaining the ad's focus. "Jobs, spending and debt are at the top of people's lists."
Above all else, Romney is touting his success in the private sector in this campaign. But critics cast the former head of Bain Capital as a corporate raider and note that Massachusetts ranked 47th in the country in job creation when he was governor. "His private sector experience is devastating, and it eliminates the entire premise of his campaign," said a Republican consultant backing Perry who would only speak without attribution about potential attacks. "His experience is more about creating wealth than creating jobs."
Romney's net worth of as much as $250 million will be used like a cudgel to hammer the message that he's callous to the struggles of ordinary Americans. Expect to hear more about Romney's plans to tear down his $12 million beachfront home in California and quadruple it in size and his support for extending the tax cuts for the wealthy begun under Bush.
Not helpful to Romney is an old photo of him with money hanging out of his lapel, from a 1984 promotion for his former company. The picture is featured on the cover of the latest New York magazine.
"Mitt Romney believes millionaires like him are entitled to pay taxes at a lower rate than teachers, cops, and construction workers," warns a new Internet ad from Priorities USA, a leading Democratic attack machine.
The new Democratic Party ad that features his recent comments about the foreclosure process concludes: "Mitt Romney's message to Arizona? You're on your own." In response, Saul said, "President Obama and his campaign will continue to try and distract Americans from his disaster of an economic record over the next year, but it's not going to work."
Similar to the "fat cat" line of attack, Romney's awkwardness on the stump will be used to portray him as out of touch with ordinary voters. Remember his cringe-worthy quip over the summer to a group of unemployed Floridians that "I'm also unemployed." Or his response to a heckler in Iowa: "Corporations are people too."
Critics use the fact that he's viewed as the most likely nominee but can't crack roughly 25 percent in the polls to dismiss him as a consolation prize. Romney allies say his poll numbers will improve once more voters are paying attention to the race.
Image credit: Chris Carlson/AP