Anti-Romney Ads: Why the Deafening Silence?

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Mitt Romney has been the front-runner for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination practically since November 4, 2008. He’s well-moneyed, well-connected, well-known. He’s poised for a strong finish tonight in Iowa. And though his star was at times eclipsed by the supernovas of success-to-failure that were his rivals’ campaigns, he’s never once been far off the lead. Which is why it’s strange that, until now, no Republican has run a single TV ad targeting Romney alone.

As the center of gravity in the nomination race shifts from Des Moines to Manchester this week, the Super PAC backing Jon Huntsman has bought up $300,000 worth of airtime in New Hampshire for this ad, which dubs Romney “the chameleon”:

Huntsman allies’ reasons for running the ad are simple. His similar profile, strategic reliance on New Hampshire and weakness in the polls necessitate a major Romney collapse if Huntsman’s to have any kind of slim shot at the nomination. But the reasons this is the first ad to be widely aired against Romney (as opposed to the general broadsides against Gingrich, Romney et al. that have run elsewhere) might not be immediately apparent:

Romney didn’t always seem like the threat in Iowa: He was never weak there, but the conventional wisdom long stated that other candidates, better fit to the Hawkeye State’s socially conservative electorate would catch fire and the former Massachusetts governor would be an afterthought. He spent $10 million there in 2008 only to be beat by Mike Huckabee. An so it was Gingrich, whose boom in the polls was timed perfectly,who took the brunt of negative ads in the Hawkeye State–45% of all ads in fact, according to CMAG. In astronomy, there’s a theory that life on Earth has been able to thrive mostly uninterrupted because Jupiter’s huge mass shields our planet from the asteroids that pepper most planets. Gingrich, naturally, is the gas giant in this case. Gingrich inisisted on running a positive campaign, even though he now seems to be having regrets–he called Romney “a liar” Tuesday morning–but his criticisms have mostly been relegated to the issues of campaign finance and negative tactics, and they’ve stayed out of his ads.

Money and timing: TV ads are expensive and they have their most pronounced effect in the few weeks directly preceding a primary. While Romney has always been strong in New Hampshire, until last week, no candidate was looking to spend big in the Granite State. Few candidates had much money to spend at all. (It bears reiterating that Huntsman Jr. isn’t paying for spot himself. The “unaffiliated” PAC running the ad is rumored to be fueled by his wealthy industrialist father.) The only candidate who ever held a candle to Romney’s fundraising was Rick Perry, who’s been all in for Iowa, trying to scrape out a candidacy-saving finish there.

Inevitability: Maybe, just maybe, everybody is hesitant to bloody Romney on the airwaves because they don’t want a raw relationship with the nominee. He’s looking that strong. Michele Bachmann was reportedly hoping for a VP slot on the Romney ticket, which is a pretty good explanation for her silence on RomneyCare, his evolution on abortion, Bain Capital and all the rest, while she was busy twisting the knife first in Perry, then Gingrich, on immigration and her favorite, “crony capitalism.”

If the GOP primary is practice for a November bowl game against President Obama, Romney’s been given the red jersey. For the most part, no contact.