Romney’s Killer Instinct: How Mitt Is Winning and Why Obama Should Take Note

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Jason Reed / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney claps as he meets with supporters at the Hall at Senate's End in Columbia, S.C., on Jan. 11, 2012

Mitt Romney has been running his presidential campaign based on a primal instinct: kill or be killed. And so after Rick Santorum fought Romney to a virtual tie in Iowa and arrived in New Hampshire trailed by media hordes, Romney’s Boston headquarters decided it was time to take the former Pennsylvania Senator down.

Boston trotted out Senator John McCain, New Hampshire’s favorite anti-pork crusader, who proceeded to slice Santorum sideways for years of earmark spending in Washington. “Senator Santorum and I have a strong disagreement … [in] that he believes that earmark and pork-barrel projects were good for America,” said McCain, who added, for good measure, that pork is a “gateway drug to corruption.”

All successful campaigns have three simple goals: to win, you must project the image you want to define you, deflect efforts by your rivals to define you on their terms and define your rivals on your terms. And this time around, Romney has been far better at defining himself and his opponents than anyone else in the race. Romney stopped pretending to be someone he wasn’t. Rather than play down his Mormon faith, he has discussed his long-standing church membership and his leadership role as a local bishop. Rather than skirt his gilded tenure as a venture capitalist at Bain, he has embraced it, defending the free-market system with relish. And he has kept things simple, traveling around the early states in a bus that read, “Conservative, businessman, leader.”

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Behind the scenes and at high-profile moments, he has also systematically targeted anyone who posed a threat to his status as GOP front runner. When Rick Perry vaulted to the top of the polls in September, Romney’s team seized on the Texas governor’s support for allowing some illegal immigrants to attend Texas universities at in-state tuition rates and his advocacy of radical changes in Social Security, putting his rival in a right-left vise. Backed by an armada of surrogates, spinners and Web videos, Romney dismantled Perry in the debates, repeatedly questioning his stances on those two issues. Perry was rattled; the more he tried to explain, the worse he looked. In short order, the Perry threat was neutralized.

Newt Gingrich’s balloon proved even easier to puncture. The Romney campaign knew it was dealing with a man with a tendency to combust in the face of even the mildest criticism. From its armory of ammunition, Boston chose Gingrich’s $1.6 million in consulting work for mortgage giant Freddie Mac, because it made the former House Speaker look greedy, hypocritical and disingenuous. Gingrich never escaped the cycle of debate questions, news stories and negative ads that Romney’s assassins helped generate.

Much of the credit for Romney’s kill rate goes to Matt Rhoades, 36, one of his generation’s top opposition-research maestros. Rhoades, who worked for Bush 43’s re-election campaign and Romney’s 2008 presidential run before becoming his campaign manager this time around, excels at finding a rival’s Achilles’ heel and making sure everyone in the U.S. hears about it. And he doesn’t spook easily: while some Romney staffers fretted when other candidates surged in the polls, Rhoades “did not even arch an eyebrow,” says colleague Kevin Madden, another veteran of Romney’s ’08 effort. “He calmly waits for the right moment. When that moment comes? Boom.”

All of this suggests that if Romney wins the nomination, he may prove a more formidable opponent in the fall than some of Barack Obama’s advisers believe. Rhoades’ team has spent the better part of a year gathering material to use against the President once the primaries are over. Among the most promising: putting a human face on the nation’s grim economic statistics. Obama’s lieutenants, no slouches themselves at dragon slaying, plan to showcase the names and stories of workers who lost their jobs at the hands of Romney’s companies.

The President is preternaturally confident that he will be able to render Romney unacceptable to voters by hammering at that record. But Romney, in his victory speech after the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, showed that he can make the election a referendum on the incumbent. Each is a tougher general-election opponent than the other has ever faced. Get ready for the main event.