Why is Romney playing in Iowa? [update]
Fri October 21, 2011 4:21 pm

The Minneapolis StarTribune is reporting that Romney intends to make a push in the first state that will be selecting delegates in this election cycle. This seems high-risk to me, but not high-reward. The risk is that Cain continues to hold the lead in Iowa and Romney finds himself in a battle with Perry for second/third. This is exactly what Perry wants. Romney can't afford to lose that battle, and, given the evangelical component of the state's voters, Romney could well finish third. Even if Cain folds, it is no certainty that Romney can beat out Perry for second. Perry is not doing well in Iowa. Why disturb the universe?

* * * *

Nate Silver of 538, the New York Times' campaign blog, raised many of the same issues in his column today:

Mitt Romney has run a smooth, low-drama campaign so far, but its aggressive posture toward Rick Perry within the past week leaves me wondering about his strategic choices.

The attacks began on Monday, when Mr. Romney started a website, CareerPolitician.com, which prominently featured a commercial critiquing Mr. Perry’s job-creation record.

On Tuesday, at the Republican debate in Las Vegas, Mr. Romney was baited by Mr. Perry, who accused Mr. Romney of employing illegal immigrants at his home. But Mr. Romney responded with equal rhetorical (and almost physical) force rather than turning the other cheek.

On Wednesday, Mr. Romney released another ad — this one mocking Mr. Perry’s debate performances and somewhat misleadingly, splicing in an introduction to Tuesday night’s debate in Las Vegas with pundit reaction to previous debates. (Mr. Romney’s campaign later pulled the ad after what it said were objections from CNN.)

Mr. Romney is right if he thinks that Mr. Perry remains the biggest threat to taking the Republican nomination from him. I say this as someone who takes Herman Cain’s chances fairly seriously and recoils at the frequent assertions without evidence that he has no chance of winning the nomination. But Mr. Perry’s advantages in terms of the fundamentals — his fund-raising, his respectable number of endorsements, his credentials and experience — are enough to outweigh Mr. Cain’s edge in the polls, especially at a time when most voters remain weakly attached to their current choices.

But it is precisely because Mr. Perry is the more threatening candidate that Mr. Romney might want to think twice about helping to position Mr. Perry as the “anti-Romney” choice — a valuable piece of real estate that candidates from Mr. Perry and Mr. Cain to Tim Pawlenty and Jon M. Huntsman Jr. have long tangled over.

I think Mr. Silver is exactly right. Romney is the frontrunner. In Mr. Silver's terms, this is the most valuable piece of real estate in a campaign. The last thing Romney should be doing is paying attention to Perry, thereby elevating his status. Romney has seized the high ground. He has distinguished himself from Perry with his intellect and his knowledge of issues and his grownup behavior. It's the challenger who should be, and will be, on the attack. It is far more perilous for the frontrunner to be on the attack. I'm surprised Romney doesn't understand this. He has let Perry get under his skin, and it is imperiling his judgment.

UPDATE:

On 10/21, the National Journal published an article saying that the Romney campaign has decided on going for the quick kill of Rick Perry. Obviously, this strategy flies in the face of everything that is published above. To reiterate:

1, Romney is much more vulnerable to attack than Perry is. Romney has health care to answer for, and his flip-flop on abortion. These are two major issues for Republican primary voters. Perry is vulnerable on social security--but it's the recipients who are mad at him, so it is only a general election issue, not a primary issue. And, of course, Perry has vulnerabilities regarding immigration.

2. Romney is going for the "quick kill" against someone who has a proven track record when it comes to raising money. Perry raised more in weeks than Romney could raise in three months.

3. You can't "quick kill" Rick Perry. First, he will raise more money (see above). Second, he is relentless. Third, his campaign team loves to go down and dirty. Romney is going to learn the wisdom of the saying, "If you sleep with the dogs, you get fleas." The Perry campaign team is completely unscrupulous. I suggest that Mr. Romney's advisers might want to exhume the bodies Rick Perry has sent to the political morgue in Texas and check their backs for knife wounds. They are there because Perry is willing to do whatever is necessary to win. Romney's first video spot, which had to be killed because it included CNN's logo, was weak. It tried to capitalize on Perry's poor debate performances. Do you think that bothered Perry? Hell no.

4. If Romney hadn't decided to attempt this strategy, I bet that the Perry people would have lured him into it. Perry would love to rope-a-dope Romney into a fight to the death in Iowa. Perry has the edge, because of the evangelical vote.

5. Romney is in danger of having to fight a two-front war. Cain is one front, Perry is the other. Cain is still a viable candidate, though I expect him to start slipping, badly. If Cain slips to third in Iowa, that leaves an opening for Perry to compete for second.

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