President Barack Obama’s political machine is increasingly making common cause with Texas Gov. Rick Perry against a shared enemy: Mitt Romney.
Romney is the opponent Democrats most fear, and whom Obama strategists view as the near-certain Republican nominee. Yet even among strategists who assume Romney will be Obama’s opponent, Perry’s newly feisty performance on the campaign trail has raised hopes that he may drag out the primary fight and bloody Romney ahead of the main event.
Obama supporters aren’t exactly coordinating attacks with Perry. But the Texas governor and national Democrats are reinforcing and amplifying a single, sharply negative message that benefits them both: that Romney is a soulless political opportunist who doesn’t deserve the presidency.
It’s a familiar attack that could resonate with voters in both the primary and general elections – and that strategists say can be delivered from the left and right with almost equal effect.
“It will be hard for Romney to beat Obama if he can’t get out from under the flip-flop narrative,” said former Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Karen Finney. “It plays into concerns the primary voters have that he can’t be trusted [and it’s] equally important in a general election against an incumbent president people like and trust.
“It’s not just that there is an alignment of interests” between Obama and Perry, Finney said. “But more importantly, it illustrates how vulnerable Romney is on this issue.”
As one Democratic operative aligned with Obama explained the strategy: “You get in the slipstream and get in behind the collective anti-Romney message. You jump in and draft off that.”
Far from an attempt to tilt the outcome of the Republican primary, the operative called the Democratic messaging push a “bow to the obvious” – that Romney’s likely to be the GOP standard-bearer.
“The thing that is unique about Romney, though, is that if you close your eyes and have somebody read the attacks on Romney it would be impossible to know if it’s coming from Perry, [Rick] Santorum, the DNC, [Democratic strategist Bill] Burton or [Obama spokesman Ben] LaBolt: that he doesn’t believe anything, that you can’t trust him, that he’s a flip-flopping weasel,” the Democrat said. “The fight he’s having in the primary is the fight he’s gonna have in the general.”
At the moment, Perry is as much a part of that fight as the Obama campaign and its Democratic allies.
The tag-team attack on Romney started last week after he slipped up in a GOP debate, denying an accusation that he knowingly employed undocumented workers – and claiming he told a lawn-care contractor, “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake.” Perry and the DNC simultaneously leaped on the quote as evidence that Romney’s a callow and calculating politician.
The dual offensive intensified Tuesday, when the Perry campaign called on Romney to release his personal tax returns. Almost immediately, the Democratic independent group Priorities USA Action – led by Burton and Sean Sweeney, two former White House aides – made the same demand.
Romney faced another pile-on a few hours later, after he ducked a question in Ohio about his position on a statewide referendum on collective bargaining. (He later clarified that he supported a restrictive labor law signed by Republican Gov. John Kasich).
Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan immediately accused Romney of practicing “finger-in-the-wind politics.” Backing him up was Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern, who assailed Romney – on a conference call advertised by the DNC – as the “consummate evolving politician who won’t make a decision beyond the headline of the most recent newspaper he’s read.”
“For once in this campaign, Rick Perry is correct in his evaluation of Mitt Romney’s commitment to an issue,” Redfern told POLITICO Wednesday, acknowledging: “We’ve all come to the conclusion that Rick Perry … will be back in Austin signing bills and Herman Cain will be off on the Koch brothers speaking tour. It seems that Mitt Romney is the only legitimate candidate left in the Republican stable.”
For the Romney campaign, the harsh barrage looks like confirmation that their opponents in both parties are spooked. While it’s possible that the attacks may do real damage at some point, at the moment, it feeds the impression cherished by Romney’s campaign: that he’s all but inevitable in the GOP primaries.
“Gov. Perry and President Obama have a lot in common, including their support for tuition breaks for illegal immigrants and opposition to a border fence. They also share abysmal jobs records,” said Romney communications director Gail Gitcho. “It is no wonder their only strategy is to issue false and negative attacks on Mitt Romney.”
Both Obama’s backers and the Perry campaign downplay the idea that there’s a tactical friendship of convenience. Perry spokesman Mark Miner insisted that Perry is “focused on policies that will improve the economy and create jobs – issues that both President Obama and Mitt Romney have failed at.”
And Burton shrugged off suggestions that Priorities USA Action had effectively partnered with Perry to try and rough up the Republican front-runner, scoffing: “Rick Perry just brought on the former head of federal emergency management to save his campaign. I hardly think their tactics were a part of any cogent strategy.”
But several Democrats in touch with the Obama campaign have confirmed that the president’s advisers are concerned about Romney – and have been, as all incumbents do, hoping for a protracted and costly primary that would damage the GOP front-runner. They have been rooting for the success of not just Perry, but also Herman Cain, the latest inheritor of conservative and grass-roots GOP fury.
Democrats with ties to Obama said that it had taken an unusually long time for Romney to start getting dinged in his primary fight – Cain has barely touched him, and Bachmann has said precious little about him. At the same time, Democrats spent weeks publicly casting Perry – their best GOP-based weapon against Romney – as a dopey lightweight, a move that lessened the impact of his attacks on his own rivals.
They had grown increasingly concerned as Michele Bachmann, and then Perry, seemed unable to land a real punch on Romney. And for two weeks now, Democrats have taken it into their own hands to batter Romney – and almost Romney alone.
They’ve organized events and conference calls with Democratic surrogates to counter-program his campaign stops, blasted out a flurry of negativeonline videos and put up paid television ads in Arizona. The comments from campaign officials are directed at Romney. Even in putting out a statement on Perry’s tax plan, the Obama campaign invoked the former Massachusetts governor.
LaBolt called the amped-up messaging against Romney an attempt to lay bright markers around the Republican’s views so that he won’t be able to run from them in the general election.
“There’s been no story analyzing the impact of Romney’s commitment to repealing Wall Street reform, no story on Romney’s commitment to the congressional Republican budget plan,” LaBolt said. “There’s been a void out there in which those questions haven’t been asked and answered and until somebody steps into that void, it’s our obligation to ask them.”
Now, with Perry showing a quickening pulse, Democrats are privately expressing glee over the prospect of having an accidental ally in running an unrelenting, character-based campaign against the Bay Stater.
Democratic consultant Dan Gerstein predicted that the early campaign against Romney could weaken him “in the primary and increases the potential, albeit slim at the moment, that one of the other, far more beatable jokers gets the nomination.”
“It begins to define [Romney] to the general election audience when he can’t really defend himself,” Gerstein said.
Democrats are betting that Perry will keep the pressure on Romney from the right – and hoping he’ll use the millions of dollars he has stockpiled to run TV ads, undermining Romney’s carefully cultivated image.
Either way, Democrats have made clear they don’t have time to wait for Romney’s GOP rivals to take him down a notch, and they’re unlikely to stop whacking him, given the possibility that Perry could falter yet again.
Republican strategist Scott Jennings, a former deputy White House political director under President George W. Bush, said the anti-Romney drumbeat looked like an all-too-transparent attempt to “co-opt the Perry vehicle to run attacks on Romney.
“Their hope would be to soften Romney up and at least plant doubts in the mind of the Republican electorate that Romney is as good a candidate as he is,” Jennings said. “They have concluded that Mitt Romney is their strongest opposition, so now they’re employing tactics to meddle in the Republican primary specifically to damage Mitt Romney.”
He added: “I just think they’re running a big risk of tipping off the Republican rank and file that, gee whiz, Obama is scared to death of this guy.”