Romney as Rambo: Will Mitt’s Offensive Cause Collateral Damage?

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The Romney campaign has been in full attack mode all week, mercilessly trashing its latest mortal enemy, Newt Gingrich. Every couple of hours a new email arrives from the Romney campaign with a subject line like, THIRD TIME’S A CHARM: GINGRICH IS RELIABLY UNRELIABLE ON THE RYAN PLAN (that one landed at 8:02 a.m. this morning, recapping Newt’s various and contradictory quotes about Paul Ryan’s budget blueprint). An hour earlier had come word of a new Romney web video featuring some snarkily recycled 2010 quotes by Gingrich praising his rival’s job creation record. And of course Romney himself, who not long ago literally fled reporters wanting to talk to him, is now telling every hack within earshot that Gingrich is a zany unreliable crackpot. The attacks–coupled with shots from other candidates, notably including some savage blasts by Ron Paul–already seem to be taking their toll on Gingrich’s standing. The question is how much collateral damage Romney might suffer himself. As Scherer noted last week, back in 2008 Romney blasted away at his rivals like Sylvester Stallone in Rambo, and it seemed to backfire in his disappointing performances in Iowa and New Hampshire. Here’s how Real Clear Politics’s Jay Cost assessed the problem in January of ’08:

Why is it that most primary candidates refuse to run sustained, intense negative campaigns? The answer is that everybody is basically on the same side. An attacking candidate has to be careful about his opponent’s core supporters. He runs the risk of alienating them – and they might ultimately refuse to support him after their guy drops out of the race. Romney might find himself in that situation. His attacks on McCain and Huckabee have been as sustained and intense as any this cycle. And there is evidence that this has damaged him with the Mac and Huck factions.

Gingrich is clearly hoping that history repeats, as evidenced by this ad in which he mournfully explains that “others seem to be focused on attacks, rather than moving the country forward.” Romney must be gambling that the current context is different from 2008. For one thing, there’s not much evidence that Newt’s new legion of fans–unlike, say, Huckabee’s in 2008–are especially passionate about him. Most are, after all, the same nomads who have wandered to the mirage-oases of Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain. So they might not take personal offense at Romney’s shots. (And many were probably resolutely anti-Mitt to begin with, voters Mitt will never get anyway).

Still, going this negative always has unpredictable consequences. In 2008 Romney developed an image as a rich guy who would say–and spend–whatever it took to win. (He may be thrifty in certain ways, but certainly not when it comes to attack ads.) It remains to be seen whether he can carry on with his Rambo routine and still get out of the jungle alive.