Unabashedly tapping his personal fortune to bolster his name recognition and organization, Mitt Romney has propelled himself to be the Republican frontrunner in Iowa. The former governor of Massachusetts has blanketed the states with ads implicitly casting him in the mold of Ronald Reagan. The ads and intense campaigning are working, providing Romney a double-digit lead over his nearest competitors in the crucial, first in the nation state. As the days wind down to January 14, when the ballots are cast, will Romney’s lead withstand increased pressure?
Romney’s Achilles’ heel is his flip-flopping. Iowans regard him as the most honest and trustworthy Republican candidate, an unfitting label reflecting the tepidity of attacks directed toward his vulnerable record. Attacks have either been weak in nature, from weak candidates, or brief mentions in a debate. Take Jim Gilmore, a former governor of Virginia who dropped out of the race after never gaining traction. Gilmore lumped the leading Republicans’ liberal views into the conglomerate candidate “Rudy McRomney”. The hesitant Gilmore repeated this phrase at his paltry campaign events, but declined to vigorously press the charges during the nationally televised debates. McCain has appeared the most willing to go after Romney’s record, but usually drops in his one or two sentence criticism when ending an answer in a debate. McCain’s campaign registered mittvsfact.com, a site intended to highlight Romney’s varying stances, but encountered their own problems and shelved the idea. No one yet has forcefully attacked Romney’s changing positions.
Either Giuliani or Thompson is suited to go after Romney on his record. The mayor is running a campaign portraying him as a strong, tough leader. He isn’t forced into running a purely positive campaign, it fits with his personality to criticize Romney. Although Giuliani’s criticism would lead to backlash highlighting his own liberal views, Giuliani’s campaign seems to have moved beyond that. Who do you want more – a leader tough on terrorism, or someone else?
It makes political sense for Thompson to confront Romney about his record, since both of them are pursuing the same social conservatives. In fact, an anti-Fred site phoneyfred.org surfaced yesterday, full of opposition research hammering Thompson for his lobbying work, policy positions and more. The creator of the site, Wes Donohue, is an employee for the South Carolina consulting firm overseeing Romney’s campaign in the state. Romney’s campaign spokesmen distanced themselves from the site, but evidently Romney supporters are afraid of losing voters to Thompson. Again, there is potential backlash for Thompson, who was a lobbyist for a pro-choice group.
Another problem for Romney is his unfavorability. At his peak in May, the percentage of his favorables minus the percentage of his unfavorables was 8%. Since then it has trended downward to -9%. Troublingly, as people find out more about him, the less they like him. That doesn’t bode well for his electability, an important issue to a party desperate to prolong its hold in the White House. With the Republicans appearing to lose seats in Congress in 2008, it’s even more important they maintain the presidency.
Romney has progressed so far in Iowa buoyed by hard campaigning. None of Giuliani, Thompson, McCain has even remotely neared his efforts. Giuliani was ambivalent early, entertaining the idea of skipping the state to focus on more moderate, delegate-rich states voting later. Thompson has gotten into the race late, and McCain is running a bare-bones operation due to low fundraising. All three also skipped the Ames straw poll, which Romney won resoundingly. Romney can no longer benefit from this lack of effort, as Giuliani has intensified his efforts recently and Thompson is starting campaigning there. As said before, Romney faces significant competition with Thompson’s entrance in courting the social conservative bloc, the backbone of Romney’s support. Without even campaigning, Thompson already ranks second in national polling and has benefited from the post-announcement bump. Nonetheless, Thompson still has to establish an organization in Iowa and show the same effort Romney has devoted to the state.
Republican support is not very committed in Iowa, less than 50% of voters are strongly backing a candidate. Iowa caucus-goers are known for deciding in the last week whom to support. Romney’s campaign seems fragile, and a properly applied push could send it downward.