By Justin Sink - 05/27/12 09:35 AM EDT
Mitt Romney is finding that the lessons he learned in the GOP primary are serving him well against President Obama.
Romney, who is expected to easily secure the 1,144 delegates he needs to sew up the GOP nomination with a victory Tuesday in Texas’s primary, is now employing some of the techniques he used to secure his party's nod to fight back against Obama’s attacks on his private equity background.
But the Romney campaign was quickly able to turn the critique to their advantage, using — as they had before — off-message surrogates and questions about commitment to free-market principles to undermine the core of rival attacks.
Romney’s rebuttal was centered primarily around not conceding an inch on economic issues, and he used the renewed focus on jobs to cast Obama as naive on the way the free market functions.
“There's no question but that he's attacking capitalism, in part I think because he doesn't understand how the free economy works. He's never had a job in the free economy, neither has Vice President Biden,” Romney told Fox News Thursday.
Those comments closely mirrored Romney's response to Newt Gingrich's criticism of his tenure at Bain in January, where one of his campaign ads accused the former House speaker of putting “free markets on trial.”
“A lot of people want to talk about how we create jobs,” Romney said, campaigning in January. “By the way — it is not to walk away from free enterprise. It is not to say that there is something wrong with the free market system. No, it is to hold fast to that system and to make it work for the American people.”
Romney's recent rebuttal carried even greater weight because the Republican challenger was able to point to high-profile Democrats who were balking at the president's line of attack.
When former Obama car czar Steve Rattner called the ad “unfair” and Newark Mayor Cory Booker dubbed the attack “nauseating,” Team Romney quickly pounced, circulating the comments to reporters and cutting web videos that prominently featured the off-message remarks.
That quickly put the Obama campaign on defense, and forced prominent Democrats from states like Connecticut, California, and New York, where donors from companies like Bain Capital wield a heavy influence, to choose sides on the issue. A Republican National Committee web video published Friday mocking the president for the “worst week ever” tallied 14 prominent Democrats expressing some skepticism about the Bain advertisements.
Using off-message surrogates to undermine an opponent's critique came right out of the Romney primary playbook.
When Gingrich and Rick Perry used plant closures in South Carolina to criticize Romney, the Republican frontrunner pointed to prominent conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) to undermine the critique. When groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Club for Growth, and Americans for Prosperity piled on, Gingrich and Perry were forced to retreat and apologize.
Earlier this week, Gingrich said that while he still believes that it is fair to take a critical look at Romney's time at Bain, Democrats should be wary.
“We found out when we got in a fight with Mitt Romney over this that it didn't work,” Gingrich told CNN.
“The average American looked up and said, ‘it's about free enterprise.’ And it turned out that particular argument simply doesn't work,” he added.
Romney has also benefited from learning the importance of hammering home a singular message on safe turf — particularly when your opponent is out on a limb.
Rick Santorum, thought to be Romney’s most viable Republican challenger when he entered the race, lost steam when his campaign was distracted by social issues like the fight over contraception access and abortion rights.
But rather than getting bogged down in a fight over contraception rights and a so-called war over women, Romney has turned back to economic issues.
“The real war upon women has been waged by [President Obama's] economic policies,” Romney said last month in Connecticut. “Let’s hammer day in and day out what has happened under his policies, and recognize those policies, those things he believes, do not work.”
Santorum also drew fire when he insinuated that the president's agenda was based on “a phony theology… not found in the Bible” while on the stump in Ohio. The candidate defended the comments, which many believed were a backdoor way to highlight the president's controversial pastor Jeremiah Wright, and was widely criticized for doing so.
Romney, who faced a similar flap earlier this month when The New York Times obtained a proposal for a Republican-leaning super-PAC that recommended some $10 million in advertisements playing up Obama's relationship with Wright, took the opposite approach, immediately distancing himself from personal attacks. Recognizing a no-win situation in a way Santorum was unable to, Romney avoided compounding the story and letting it do more damage to his effort.
The presumptive Republican nominee is reaping the benefits of surviving his primary struggle, and the lessons he learned throughout. While there were concerns that Romney's inability to shake his initial challengers might have weakened his campaign, instead he seems to have emerged with the begrudging respect of Republican loyalists.
In a Fox News poll released last week, Romney earned the support of 84 percent of Republicans — only marginally less than the 88 percent of Democrats who said they would back President Obama. Of the Tea Party loyalists that were reportedly wary of a Romney nomination, some 78 percent say they plan to back the Republican nominee and 84 percent say they are extremely or very interested in the election.