The GOP presidential contest is officially out of control. We blame Mitt Romney.
While the race has been winnowed down, it is still fluid, and one of four candidates could be chosen to battle against Barack Obama in the fall election. Problem is, once the nominee is chosen he may be so bloodied that he will limp into the contest with Obama mortally wounded by his home team.
Nomination battles are meant to be intramural affairs that showcase the ideas of candidates without the partisan savagery that typically appears in the fall.
2012 is different, the GOP nomination battle has gotten bloody, personal, and over the top.
Now you may wonder why we blame Mitt Romney for the nastiness. They all have been nasty. We blame Romney because he has brought millions of dollars of resources to the nastiness, and it is pretty clear he started it, restarted it, and continues it when polling shows he is depressing the GOP vote and seriously damaging the GOP for a fall campaign against Obama. It is as if he has adopted a rule or ruin attitude toward the race.
Before Iowa, the candidates treated each other with respect, even as they shared sharp disagreements on issues from immigration to the stimulus to Romneycare. Both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have been tough on Mitt Romney for supporting a program in Massachusetts that both contend is the model for Obamacare.
Both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have been tough on Mitt Romney about his flip flop from pro-choice to pro-life. Rick Santorum has been tough on both Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney for supporting the healthcare universal mandate.
Discussion of these policy issues is good, and these differences helps voters make informed decisions.
But the race started to spin out of control when Mitt Romney smelled victory in Iowa. Early on he acted nonchalant about the Iowa contest, preferring to focus on his home state of New Hampshire. But when he smelled blood, he brought in his attack machine and went to work.
The Iowa Caucuses ended in a dead heat, and several weeks later it was revealed Rick Santorum won by a nose. Santorum won because negative ads by Romney about Gingrich drove conservative voters to Santorum, not the Romney banner.
As expected, Romney won New Hampshire, but Newt Gingrich was able to come back the next week and win big in South Carolina. Gingrich was a member of Congress from nearby Georgia, and he has a finely tuned understanding of southern sensibilities.
Then the Romney machine went crazy, carpet bombing Florida with the nastiest ads in Republican primary history. In particular, a Romney supported super PAC ran an ad with the imagery of bribery. Repeated suitcases fell in the luggage carousel at the airport exposing how Newt Gingrich received a suitcase of greenbacks from special interests. While Newt Gingrich isn't perfect, it was unconscionable to accuse him of accepting bribes. Romney and his people had gone too far.
Ironically for Romney, when he attacks Gingrich, the votes don't come to him. They go to Rick Santorum. Romney's millions has breathed new life into the Santorum campaign and most likely helped him win Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado.
So Romney has changed tactics again. Now he is targeting his millions at Santorum. Question is will the voters scared away from that campaign go to Romney, Gingrich, or Ron Paul.
It seems pretty clear that in the South and Midwest, Romney cannot assemble a plurality. He only does well in the liberal states of the Northeast and far West. He still has millions to spend, and Wall Street is pouring millions more into his super PACs.
Romney now has his sights set on mortally wounding Rick Santorum as he has wounded Newt Gingrich. But this win at all costs may be a hollow victory. Without conservative support in the fall for the moderate Romney, he won't mount an effective challenge to Obama, even if he barely wins the nomination. Romney aggressive campaign is alienating conservatives even as it depresses Republican turnout to the lowest levels in decades.