In last night’s Republican debate, the newly aggressive Mitt Romney came out slamming Newt Gingrich, repeating the charge that Gingrich “resigned in disgrace,” blaming Gingrich for Republican losses in the House in 1998 (though the GOP retained its majority), and reminding people of Gingrich’s work for Freddie Mac. He also directly questioned Gingrich’s leadership qualities.
From a purely tactical level, this strategy may be necessary but it is a mixed bag for Romney.
First, Romney doesn’t play the angry aggressor very well, so when he does so it makes him seem as if he’s willing to appear less than genuine in order to go after an opponent. This is a big problem for Romney when one of voters’ big fears about him is that they’re not sure who or what he really is. Even though those fears have been on policy issues, i.e. “Is he really a conservative, or did he change his views for purely political reasons?”, a parallel will be created in peoples’ minds: “Is he really a nice guy or is he just pretending to be so to get elected?” The latter will be easier for people to conclude if they already question his sincerity on policy. (For the record, based on what friends who know Romney have told me, he is indeed a nice guy, but some small fraction of one percent of the American electorate will ever actually meet a presidential candidate.) While voters might not put “nice guy” near the top of their lists of characteristics they care about in a nominee, it still removes one clear differentiator between Romney and Gingrich, since “nice guy” would not fall from any Republican’s mouth when asked to describe the former Speaker.
Second, to the extent that Romney’s charges against Gingrich are disproven or adequately explained by the former Speaker, it puts Romney’s truth-telling ability into question. It’s one thing to represent facts in a way that favors your side, but it’s something else to make a statement that the public comes to believe was simply untrue.
Third, on the good side for Romney, these attacks will keep Newt Gingrich slightly off his game, keeping him from spending as much time on “big ideas” and other things that the public really wants to hear from him. It falls somewhat into the category of, as former Congressman Bob Schaffer has reminded me, “if you’re explaining, you’re losing.” The other side of the coin, though, is that it also takes Romney off of his game, which is talking about how he will put the economy in a position to create jobs, and how the real enemy of prosperity is the Obama administration.
Fourth, Romney’s criticisms of Gingrich are unfocused. They don’t force people to focus on a particular issue or flaw, whether ethics, Freddie Mac, or whatever. When putting the frame around your opponent, having people think a little bit about a bunch of things is not nearly as effective as having them unable to forget one particular thing.
What would be more effective for Romney, while he’s making these various attacks and accusations, is to continually tie them to his fundamental point — which he is leaving mostly implied when it should be explicit — that Newt Gingrich is unlikely to be able to beat Barack Obama. Poll after poll has shown that that characteristic — electability — is foremost in Republicans’ minds. It’s one thing for Romney to attack Gingrich’s history, but if he wants those attacks to do anything other than make himself look like a guy who is “desperate” and will “say anything,” as Gingrich put it, then he must make the conclusion in voters’ minds: Gingrich’s history makes him unelectable.
The way Romney is doing it now, with scatter-shot attacks on multiple aspects of Newt’s history, is not working. After last night’s debate, betting odds showed a few point increase in Newt Gingrich’s chances of winning the Florida Republican primary, rising to about 60 percent, with Romney falling about 3 percent to 40 percent. While Romney is still trading around 63 percent to be the eventual nominee, these are his lowest betting odds in more than a month.
Gingrich’s success is taking Romney away from the strength of his game. Romney can’t play Gingrich’s more aggressive game and expect to do well. Instead of all-over-the-map criticisms of the former Speaker, Romney should pick one or two major issues to go after Gingrich with, tie that to the question of electability, and return some of his focus to what was working before: a focus on jobs and the economy, emphasizing his own expertise in the private sector and not apologizing for his success.