Mitt Romney spent the first five months of his bid for the Republican presidential nomination as a vulnerable frontrunner.
Now that he has slipped behind Texas Governor Rick Perry in the polls, Romney’s team has refashioned a quiet campaign into an attack machine.
The new tack will be on display tonight, when Romney faces off against the rest of the Republican field for the third time this month in a televised debate. In previous debates, Romney highlighted Perry’s stance on Social Security, pressing him to explain how he thought the federal program could be turned over to state or local governments. This time, he started early.
“People move and they go from state to state to state,” Romney said in a Miami town hall meeting yesterday. “How would you deal with people moving all over the place?”
Romney’s tone is a sign of how the campaign has narrowed to a two-man race between the fiery, populist Perry and more politically cautious Romney. The battle is also for the direction of the party, pitting grassroots activists against Republican leaders.
Romney’s remarks kicked off an important three-day period for the Republican contenders in the crucial swing state of Florida. After the debate, the candidates will attend a number of events sponsored by the socially conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition that will culminate in a non-binding straw poll vote on Sept. 24.
Romney aides and supporters say the dynamic of the race, not their strategy, has changed since Perry declared his candidacy.
“It’s just logical that the race would change somewhat when it’s being defined as a two-person race,” said Vin Weber, a former member of Congress from Minnesota, who is supporting Romney. “The differences between the two candidates are going to be brought into sharper relief.”
Still, there are signs that Romney’s team has been recalibrating. His campaign blasts Perry almost daily, questioning his economic record and support for Social Security, and is announcing policy positions on jobs and the housing crisis. And after spending little time in Iowa, Romney may step up efforts in early-voting states to woo Tea Party and socially conservative voters backing the Texas governor.
Yesterday, Romney’s campaign announced the support of former Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman, the latest endorsement by a prominent party leader. Missouri Senator Roy Blunt is backing Romney, and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty signed up with the campaign after ending his own bid for president.
“Obviously, he’s not the frontrunner anymore, so that tends to concentrate the mind,” said Frank Donatelli, chairman of the national Republican advocacy group GOPAC and a top adviser to Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid. “He’s going to be very, very aggressive in trying to contrast himself with Perry.”
Romney is also trying to capture the spotlight from Perry. Since the Texas governor entered the race on Aug. 13, he has gotten more than twice as much news coverage, featuring prominently in 262 reports compared with Romney’s 120, according to data collected by Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Last week, fewer stories were written about Romney than about Josh Fattal, the American hiker kidnapped in Iran.
“Since he’s gotten into the race, Perry clearly seems to have been the dominant force in the Republican narrative,” said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director at the Pew project.
Being overshadowed makes it easier for Romney to make his case, said Dan Schnur, a University of Southern California political scientist and veteran of several Republican campaigns.
“It’s allowed him to be more aggressive,” he said. “This gives Romney a chance to play offense rather than defense.”
As the leader in national and state polls, Perry has been the target of the strongest attacks from rivals. U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota criticized a 2007 order he issued in Texas requiring preteen girls to get vaccinations against the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, known as HPV, which causes cervical cancer. Representative Ron Paul of Texas has accused Perry of raising taxes in his home state as governor.
“When you’re the frontrunner, you’re always catching everyone else’s javelins,” said Schnur.
A USA Today/Gallup poll published Sept. 19 said Perry led the field with 31 percent, followed by Romney with 24 percent. Perry was stronger among Republicans and independents who lean Republican and often decide nomination battles. Romney did better with swing voters, who are crucial to winning general elections.
Romney has also solidified his lead in New Hampshire, where voters know him from his time as governor of neighboring Massachusetts. Romney has surged in the early voting state, beating his nearest rival, Paul, by 27 points, in a survey of Republican voters conducted by Suffolk University/7NEWS. Perry drew 8 percent, compared with Romney’s 41 percent.
In appearances in Florida yesterday, Romney hammered Perry over Social Security. His campaign argues that Perry’s rhetoric on Social Security makes him unelectable by alienating independent voters whose support will be needed to beat President Barack Obama.
“America has promised that that program will be there,” Perry said after a private fundraiser in Fort Lauderdale. “For anyone to say differently, particularly someone standing on the Republican stage who wants to be the nominee for the presidency, to imply that the age-old Democrat trick that we’re going to go scare our seniors -- that’s pretty irresponsible.”
Perry’s campaign argues that voters will reward him for taking on what it says is a financially unsustainable program, and it charges Romney with shifting stances on such issues as abortion rights and gay marriage.
“As he has so many times in the past, Mr. Romney seems to forget he’s a Republican,” Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan said in a statement yesterday. “Rick Perry and other conservatives are courageous enough to be honest about federal spending and entitlements, whether Mr. Romney and the liberals like it or not.”
--Editors: Jim Rubin, Jeanne Cummings.
To contact the reporter on this story: Lisa Lerer in Washington at [email protected].
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at [email protected]
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