Mitt Romney can’t win for losing. Wednesday’s New York Times “news analysis” by Michael Barbaro and Ashley Parker posed as concerned over the “heavy new baggage” the Romney campaign had acquired by successfully going negative against Newt Gingrich in his Florida primary victory Tuesday night: “A Nasty Fight Carries Risks for the Winner.” Of course it does.
With his resounding victory over Newt Gingrich in Florida on Tuesday, Mitt Romney showed a worried Republican base a side of himself that it has both longed for and feared that he lacked: the agile political street fighter, willing to mock, scold and ultimately eviscerate his opponent.
But if he has quelled doubts about his toughness, he also emerges from the Florida free-for-all and the three contests that preceded it carrying heavy new baggage.
Mr. Romney was savaged by Mr. Gingrich over his record at Bain Capital, softening him up for the coming Democratic effort to portray him as a heartless capitalist happy to fire people to enrich himself. His release of his tax returns, complete with details about a Swiss bank account, provided new facts for opponents seeking to cast him as out of touch with ordinary Americans.
And the very trait that propelled him in Florida -- a willingness to descend into the muck and run a relentlessly negative campaign -- distracted from his economic-themed argument against Mr. Obama while deepening his rift with some populist conservatives. Should Mr. Gingrich remain a viable enough candidate to stay in the race through the summer, as he vowed on Tuesday, Mr. Romney could be forced to maintain an angry edge that could undermine his appeal among moderate and independent voters -- groups whose views of him, polls suggest, appear to have been harmed by the Florida melee.
Mr. Romney has never been especially squeamish about negative campaigning. As jarring as his tone has seemed over the past 10 days, he has a long history of resorting to such tactics. (The exception was 2008, when Mr. Romney bowed out relatively early in the primary season.)
During his 2002 campaign for governor of Massachusetts, Mr. Romney ran biting commercials that portrayed his Democratic rival, the state treasurer Shannon O’Brien, as a basset hound asleep on the job as men walked off with bags of money. His poll numbers soon surged, and he pulled out an unexpected victory.
“He has learned along the way that this stuff works pretty well,” said Ms. O’Brien, who called the ads inaccurate and unfair.
Even as they employ hostile and loaded language against Romney's "negative campaigning," Times reporters surely realize such things go in both directions. Romney himself was the victim of harsh attacks on his religion by Sen. Ted Kennedy when they faced off in the 1994 Senate race in Massachusetts, as the Times documented: “Mr. Kennedy said in response to a reporter's question that Mr. Romney should be asked about his stand on the Mormon church's racially exclusive policies of the past.”