With Mitt Romney poised to win the Florida Republican primary, and maybe by a significant margin if the latest polls are correct, it’s worth asking: how did the former Massachusetts governor manage to stop Newt Gingrich’s surge coming out of South Carolina?
It turns out he did it the old fashioned way — he went relentlessly negative. As the New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg and Jeff Zeleny report, the Romney campaign responded to its humiliation in South Carolina with a campaign meant to send the mercurial Gingrich off his moorings, which they believed wouldn’t take much. It appears they were right.
One of Gingrich’s greatest weaknesses was his well-known tendency to be undisciplined. Romney’s effort was geared to exploit that.
But the challenge for Romney if he gets past Gingrich and becomes his party’s nominee is that he would be facing a well-disciplined candidate in President Obama with a reputation for being slow to anger and for having an equanimity about him and desire for orderliness that earned him the nickname “No-drama Obama.”
That’s not to say that Romney won’t be able to use tactics similar to those he has mustered against Gingrich to try and force Obama into making costly errors.
It’s just to say that the president will likely be a much harder, but not impossible target for Romney. Obama is human, after all, and no doubt has his breaking point which the Romney campaign will work overtime to try and locate.
At one point not very long ago, Obama’s ability to handle personal criticism was questioned even by his closest political adviser, David Axelrod.
As Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson wrote in “The Battle for America 2008″ Axelrod, in a 2006 memo, questioned his candidate’s intestinal fortitude when it came to the nastier side of political combat.
“Axelrod also warned that Obama’s confessions of youthful drug use, described in his memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” would be used against him. “This is more than an unpleasant inconvenience,” he wrote. “It goes to your willingness and ability to put up with something you have never experienced on a sustained basis: criticism. At the risk of triggering the very reaction that concerns me, I don’t know if you are Muhammad Ali or Floyd Patterson when it comes to taking a punch. You care far too much what is written and said about you. You don’t relish combat when it becomes personal and nasty. When the largely irrelevant Alan Keyes attacked you, you flinched,” he said of Obama’s 2004 Senate opponent.”
Being a president who has seen some of his political opponents put Hitler mustaches on pictures of him and who was once interrupted during a state of the union speech by GOP Congressman Joe “You Lie” Wilson of South Carolina has probably given the president plenty more practice at letting criticism roll off than when Axelrod wrote his memo. Not to mention the 2008 contest with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Nonetheless, some of Obama’s Republican critics accuse him of still being unable to suffer their slings and arrows nobly, using his airport tarmac confrontation with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer as a case in point.
Obama later told ABC News’ Diane Sawyer that the encounter was “not a big deal” and suggested that it was a publicity stunt on Brewer’s part.
Still, considering the notion traveling conservative circles that Obama is unduly defensive, it seems likely given what how Romney was able to unhorse Gingrich with a barrage of negative attacks that he’ll try something similar with Obama, too, hoping to get the president to take the bait.
But there are some challenges in that strategy for Romney. One is that Obama is much better liked by voters than Gingrich, so Romney could risk turning off many potential swing voters if his attacks against Obama get too personal.
Second, Romney hasn’t necessarily shown himself to be impervious to bouts of hyper sensitivity to criticism. Anyone who doubts that need only go back and watch his infamous Fox News interview with Brett Baier.
Third, the Obama campaign and Democrats generally are going to have abundant resources to relentlessly attack Romney and keep him on the defensive in a way that Gingrich could barely manage.