WASHINGTON — Riddle me this: How do you stop an ultra-wealthy presidential candidate who leads in early voting states, already has dumped $17.5 million of his own money into his bid and could spend boatloads more to rack up wins in a squeezed primary schedule?
Mitt Romney’s rivals can only hope they figure that out — and fast.
One answer might seem easy: use your own millions to broadcast the nastiest flip-flop ads you can against him in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — and hope his poll numbers in those early states tumble. He already trails his top rivals in national surveys.
The reality, however, isn’t clear-cut.
Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, John McCain and Mike Huckabee are struggling to determine the best approach for taking down Romney and elevating themselves two months before voting begins.
“Everyone who isn’t Mitt Romney is sitting around looking at their cash on hand, looking at their opposition research and trying to figure out what the silver bullet is, when do I shoot it and how do I make sure it kills,” Phil Musser, a Republican strategist backing the former Massachusetts governor.
There’s plenty of fodder — Romney has reversed positions on abortion while shifting to the right on a string of issues.
Still, his rivals face two major dilemmas as they plot strategy:
The compressed calendar — with more than two dozen states voting before Feb. 6 — stresses every candidate’s bank account. Giuliani and Thompson, unlike Romney, don’t have a seemingly endless supply of personal cash. Both have raised millions of dollars, but Giuliani had only $12 million on hand for the primaries at the end of September and Thompson had $7 million. Cash-strapped McCain and Huckabee had much less, while Romney had $9 million in his bank account and had indicated he was willing to invest more of his own fortune.
Going negative can backfire, particularly in a multi-candidate field. Just four years ago, Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt were front-runners to win the Democratic nomination. Looking to seal the deal, each ran blistering ads just before Iowa voted. The result was mutually assured destruction: Both ended up losing voters and the nomination. John Kerry and John Edwards got the coveted tickets out of the leadoff caucus state. The lesson: Those who run negative ads risk driving up their own negative perceptions in voters’ minds.
“Each leading candidate has their own strength — Romney has wealth, Giuliani is America’s 9/11 hero and Thompson has Southern conservatism,” said Greg Strimple, a New York-based Republican strategist unaligned with any of the campaigns. “That said, the most strategically difficult question to answer right now in the Republican primary is how do you offset the advantages of Romney’s economic wealth in a front-weighted primary.”
Many elections have proven that money doesn’t guarantee a win. Steve Forbes, who contributed about $38 million to his campaigns in 1996 and 2000, and Ross Perot, who pumped in $63 million in 1992, both lost.
Unlike them, Romney has a political background. And he has proven he can raise money from donors — $45 million as of Sept. 30 — as well as open his wallet. Many GOP strategists see the businessman-turned-politician as one of two Republicans — Giuliani being the other — with the most plausible paths to the nomination.
Romney leads by double-digits in Iowa; his edge is tighter in New Hampshire. His nomination is hardly assured.
Giuliani leads in national polls. He is giving Romney a chase in Iowa and New Hampshire while having the advantage in some other states. Thompson, McCain, Huckabee and a few long-shots also are factors.
Because of Romney’s deep pockets, several Republicans argue that he has a better shot to rebound from an early state defeat or to counter an advertising shellacking than his poorer opponents. They could be at the mercy of what GOP strategist Terry Nelson calls “market dynamics” — losing early and watching cash dry up.
“Romney could invest some amount of money more, nobody knows how much, and that means he then has an ability to survive attacks and live to fight another day if he chooses to do that,” said Nelson, a veteran of President Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign who managed McCain’s bid until July.
Added Evan Tracey, president of the political ad-tracking firm TNS Media Intelligence/Campaign Media Analysis Group: “The problem is when you face a guy like Romney, who is both raising and donating, you can’t calculate what he will or won’t do. You can only calculate what you can and can’t do.”
So, while Romney executes his momentum-based strategy — win Iowa and use that victory to roll up others in New Hampshire, Michigan, South Carolina and beyond — his opponents are mapping out their own plans.
—Giuliani, the ex-mayor of New York, is competing in Iowa and New Hampshire but his math-based strategy continues to be geared more toward delegate-rich, expensive states that vote later like Florida and California.
—Thompson, the “Law & Order” actor and former Tennessee senator, is hoping for a strong showing in Iowa but is focused more on the Southern states of South Carolina and Florida.
—McCain, the Arizona senator who triumphed in New Hampshire in 2000, is looking to that state as he seeks a comeback, as well as South Carolina.
—Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, is zeroing in on Iowa, where he’s recently gained ground
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