The Wall Street Journal editorial board may have said it best: Perhaps the only positive element of certain Republican presidential candidates' scurrilous, Left-wing attacks on Mitt Romney's tenure at Bain Capital is that they are forcing Team Romney to address and refine their talking points on the subject early on in the process. This could help inoculate Romney in advance of the inevitable second act from Democrats, if Romney ends up as the GOP nominee. Even so, Democrats can barely disguise their glee that Romney's getting battered as a rich "vulture capitalist" from members of his own party. They say the theme will be revisited with a vengeance in the general election:
[Democratic strategists] acknowledge that they planned to roll out the Bain angle later for a reason, they find it pretty hard to contain their grins overall. “I would have preferred to wait, yes, to keep the bottle of whup-ass fresher,” one Obama campaign strategist told TPM. “At the same time — and this is important to note — having the Republicans eat their own actually makes the Bain story more potent than we ever could because it instantly validates it as a line of attack and falls on independent ears as a matter of legitimate debate, not as a partisan line of attack.” "[Bain is] a general election issue for independent and swing voters in places like Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Indiana,” a senior Democratic strategist told TPM. “We were shocked that his rivals went there but nonetheless pleased because now the charges about his status as a corporate raider enjoy the lustre of bipartisan ship.”
As the above quote hints, it’s worth noting that the Gingrich and Perry war on Bain is a far cry from what the actual general election attacks will look like. The current fight is being waged almost entirely via public statements from two resource-strapped politicians, neither of whom has a particularly impressive supply of surrogates willing to amplify their message. And while Democrats have fanned the flames from the sidelines somewhat with press events and web videos, they’ve yet to spend a single dollar on anti-Bain TV ads themselves. That won’t be the case as the calendar ticks towards November. Once Democrats decide its time to make their ultimate Bain push, they’ll have the resources to flood the zone with TV spots, direct mail (likely referencing Bain layoffs in targeted swing states), and a small army of Democratic lawmakers and operatives reinforcing the story 24/7 on cable news.
In other words, all-out class warfare is the Left's general election strategy. As predicted, it will be vicious, personal, and relentless. They cannot talk about their own dismal record, so it'll be attack, attack, attack, 24/7. As the story indicates, Newt & Co's sleazy foray into this realm is something of a double-edged sword. On one hand, it pushes these questions out into the open sooner than Democrats would have hoped. This could render the issue less potent in the fall, and it gives the Romney campaign more lead time to fashion detailed and compelling rebuttals -- which they have not effectively rolled out to date. On the other hand, the Obama forces can clip quotes from Gingrich and Perry making their Left-wing arguments for them. Voila! All of a sudden, it's a "legitimate" bipartisan criticism. That's a shame, but the bell can't be un-rung at this point, even as the culpable parties appear to be backing away from this destructive brand of sniping (apparently, it's infuriating their donors -- go figure).
But is it working? The evidence is mixed. Since Newt and others unleashed their anti-capitalistic, Hail Mary tantrum, Romney's national lead has surged. According to Gallup, he now holds a 19-point advantage over his closest foe, Rick Santorum. He's also rushed out to a massive lead in Florida, with a rumored major endorsement in his pocket. But, the race in South Carolina has tightened. Romney's lead has shriveled to two points, perhaps at least partially due to the Bain attacks being leveled by a pro-Newt SuperPAC in a multimillion dollar ad buy. A Romney-supporting outside group has begun hitting back hard, slamming Newt as "desperate" and pointing out his political luggage. Note the pull quotes from National Review, Rush Limbaugh, and the Club for Growth:
That's a smart response...for now. But how does the Romney campaign intend to fend off these attacks from the people who truly believe it? Independents in places like the rust belt will need to hear aggressive and persuasive push-back if the GOP wants to flip those states to red. Romney has already hinted at the broad messaging strategy ("merit society" vs. "envy") he'd employ to beat back the class envy hordes, which polling suggests may work to some extent. But the Bain record remains a vulnerability as long as it isn't properly explained as an asset. Team Romney needs to lock that argument down thoroughly and specifically. If they can't, that deficiency alone could be enough of a problem to push undecided Republican into other candidates' camps.
UPDATE - Rick Santorum explains how he and fellow Republicans should attack Mitt Romney:
The candidate trying to portray himself as the only true conservative in the race has elected to use Romney's record as a governor, not a businessman, to go on the offensive. "The other side is going to look at my record and look at Gov. Romney's record on health care and say, 'You want to attack me on health care? Who are you to attack me on something that I used your plan to build my health care method?'" said Santorum. "He's taking away the biggest issue that we have in this election." The former Pennsylvania senator arrived in South Carolina on Wednesday coming off a fifth place finish in the New Hampshire primary, where he told those here not to look at his ultimate finish, but how dramatically he improved in his poll numbers since last month.