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Romney targets Santorum's vulnerabilities

Mitt Romney may be struggling right now, but as Rachel noted on the show last night, we've seen these circumstances before.
Romney targets Santorum's vulnerabilities
Romney targets Santorum's vulnerabilities

Mitt Romney may be struggling right now, but as Rachel noted on the show last night, we've seen these circumstances before. Sure, the former governor is trailing Rick Santorum this week, but this is hardly the first time Romney has surrendered a lead.

In previous instances, he's reclaimed the frontrunner slot by tearing down his principal rival. Indeed, when it comes to Newt Gingrich, Romney spent millions to crush the former Speaker twice -- once in advance of the Iowa caucuses, and again ahead of the Florida primary. A one-page playbook quickly came into focus: when Romney loses his edge, he can use his financial advantage to bury his rival with attack ads.

With Gingrich, though, this wasn't too difficult. One need not be an opposition-research expert to notice the Georgia Republican's more glaring flaws: a scandalous personal life, ethics violations, a resignation in disgrace, an extensive political record with embarrassing votes and positions, etc.

With Santorum, it's not nearly as easy.

Indeed, right out of the gate, the Romney campaign ran into trouble, dispatching former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) yesterday to condemn Santorum's vote for a Republican Medicare Part D vote. The problem? Talent, who served alongside Santorum in the Senate, voted for the same bill.

The advertising strategy is underwhelming, too.

The Pennsylvania Republican will "be defined by two things," the [Romney] advisor said.The first is a comparison to Barack Obama: "He's never run anything," said the advisor. The Pennyslvanian's experience is limited to roles as a legislator and legislative staffer. "The biggest thing he ever ran is his Senate office," he siad.The second is a challenge to Santorum's Washington experience. "They're going to hit him very hard on earmarks, lobbying, voting to raise the federal debt limit five times," said the advisor.

To that end, Romney's super PAC has already released its first anti-Santorum attack ad, to be aired in Arizona, Michigan, and Ohio, slamming the former senator for a series of votes, including congressional pay increases, and a measure in which he partnered with Hillary Clinton.

As attack ads go, this isn't bad, but it lacks the sheer brutality of Romney's destruction of Gingrich. I'm sure the focus groups responded well to the commercial, but will some votes to raise the debt ceiling -- a position that all Republicans supported up until very recently -- really stop Santorum's momentum?

To be sure, Romney's task isn't easy. The guy used to support abortion rights, gay rights, gun control, "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants, and combating climate change. He distanced himself from Reagan, attended Planned Parenthood fundraisers, and helped create the blueprint for the Affordable Care Act. He supported contraception access, taxpayer-funded abortions, and taxpayer-financed medical care for undocumented immigrants.

It's not, in other words, easy to convince the Republican base that Rick Santorum just isn't conservative enough.

But therein lies the problem: destroying Gingrich was fairly easy; crushing Santorum won't be.

For his part, the Santorum campaign has a new ad in Michigan, trying to use Romney's playbook against him, mocking the former governor for his relentless attack ads:

noted this morning, this is probably the kind of ad Gingrich should have run, but didn't.