John McCain attacked Mitt Romney this week, shining light on the governor’s differing stances over the years. The McCain campaign has even registered an anti-Mitt url, mittvsfact.com, and plans to launch it in the coming weeks. McCain’s attacks can be taken as the mark of a desperate campaign, short on money and long on staff. Romney has surged to the top in Iowa and New Hampshire, buoyed by strong organizations and heavy ad buys. However, McCain’s strategy, although it has the short-term possibility of stunting Romney’s ascent, is not a long-term winner.
There are four Republican candidates in the top tier: McCain, Romney, Rudy Giuliani, and Fred Thompson. Let’s simplify the Republican primary electorate into two sections: the moderates and the conservatives. A problem for McCain is he’s stuck in the middle and can’t claim either one for himself. McCain’s moved right since 2000, embracing the “agents of intolerance”, but his stances on immigration and McCain-Feingold hurt him with the Republican base. Similarly, his rightward shift has lowered support among moderates.
Romney has been courting the social conservative wing of the party and draws on much of his support from that base. McCain’s strategy exemplifies a problem with negative advertising in a primary: it detracts more from the attacked candidate than it benefits the attacker. Say Romney’s support dips after McCain’s attacks. Where are Romney’s supporters likely to go? Not McCain, who was the only one at the Republican debate supporting his immigration policy. Romney’s supporters will go to Fred Thompson, the other top-tier candidate who can tout conservative credentials. So McCain spends money criticizing Romney, but the attacks actually benefit Fred Thompson. Sure, McCain will pick up some voters, but he’d still lag behind Giuliani and possibly Thompson.
McCain has the problem of being in right-center, a complicated situation posing serious problems to his campaign.
Update: Jonathan Martin of the Politico says the above is the “so-called ‘Murder-suicide’ scenario”, which is an act in which an individual kills one or more other persons immediately before, or while killing himself or herself.