I HAVE to admit to a soft spot for the “Rombo’’ ad that Rick Santorum is airing in Michigan, in which a Mitt Romney look-alike runs, Rambo-like, through an empty warehouse, shooting mud through a machine gun. I like when attack ads go meta, and when they go over the top, and when they make people want to laugh instead of hide under the bed.
And I doubt Romney minds the attack. At this point, it seems, he wants to look a little bit crazy-maniacal.
Nothing else has worked, so far, in terms of clinching the GOP love. Mitt doesn’t want to be the guy who ran for Massachusetts governor in 2002, describing himself as “progressive’’ and “not a partisan Republican.’’ His early strategy of coasting by as Mr. Good Enough - conservative enough, electable enough, and less visibly insane than the alternatives - has run into some unexpected roadblocks.
These days, a decent chunk of the electorate wants warriors: culture warriors, war-vet warriors, Tea Party warriors. Fuming from the ears, Newt Gingrich-style, is, perhaps, a little much. But Mitt’s handlers have clearly decided it’s no good to be too nice.
So there Romney was at the Conservative Political Action Conference, calling himself a “severely conservative Republican governor.’’ In the Wall Street Journal last week, he was chest-puffing on China. On the stump, he plays an angry Toby Keith song, “American Ride.’’ (Sample lyric: “Momma gets her rocks off watchin’ ‘Desperate Housewives’/Daddy works his ass off payin’ for the good life.’’) He’s trying harder to be “Rombo’’ than Ward Cleaver.
Here in Massachusetts, we can remember when Ward Cleaver-ness served Romney well. Mitt’s path to the governorship had a lot to do with projecting 1950s-style values, down to his habit of pushing female opponents aside with old-fashioned, good-natured condescension: He famously told his general election opponent, Shannon O’Brien, that her attacks on him were “unbecoming.’’ In a state where people routinely curse each other out for minor traffic offenses, Romney’s expressions of anger were clean and square: He said things like “It just frosts me,’’ or, in a pique of rage, “h-e-double-hockey-sticks.’’
And plenty of voters took his demeanor as a sign of civility and virtue. “He’s just, like, a classic good guy. A classic gentleman. The way your grandfather was,’’ a 32-year-old told me in Boston, back then.
But these days, within the GOP campaign, nostalgia for 1950s-era rhetoric has given way to nostalgia for 1950s-era policies on contraception. Meanwhile, civility has gone out of vogue. According to a story in Politico this week, some former Fox News viewers are angry at the network because it’s no longer partisan enough, having committed such sins as parting ways with Glenn Beck and asking Republican candidates tough questions.
Even so, there are advantages to Romney’s good-natured persona. For one, it offsets the charge that he’s a heartless corporate raider who didn’t want to bail out Detroit. (Mitt comes off more like a kindly uncle . . . who fired your other uncle). Besides, an even keel is central to Romney’s record of accomplishments. As governor, he was no culture warrior. If anything, he was severely technocratic. And for those voters who would prefer that the country’s problems be solved by adults, he could remain a decent standard-bearer.
Alas, problem-solving is not the chief priority of certain primary voters in Michigan, where some polls now show Santorum leading Romney by decent margins. And the Romney campaign is clearly spooked. As Santorum’s ad predicts, Romney’s Super PAC friends are blitzing the airwaves with attacks on Santorum’s conservative credentials.
But Romney is never going to beat Santorum, the truest of true believers, at the I’m-righter-wing-than-you-are game. He’s going to have to find some other advantages to exploit. For instance, a recent CNN poll shows that women prefer Romney to Santorum by a 9-point margin. Maybe Mitt should dig out the old TV ad he used in the governor’s race, which showed him splashing in water, wearing no shirt. Come to think of it, Rambo sometimes went shirtless, too.