LOS ANGELES – "I'm sure we'll disagree on issues from time to time, but I doubt you'll see the rancor that apparently may exist elsewhere," said Mitt Romney, commenting on the shouting match between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama spokesmen about Obama supporter David Geffen’s anti-Hillary rant.
That was Feb. 23.
A week later, Romney went on the attack against his two major rivals, with rancor worthy of the angriest Democrat. Pushing one hot button after another, he accused John McCain of wrongly promoting amnesty for 11 million illegal immigrants, and Rudy Giuliani of being wrong on abortion, gay rights, and guns.
"He is pro-choice, he is pro-gay marriage and anti-gun," was Romney’s description of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. "That's a tough combination in a Republican primary."
As for McCain, Romney criticized his role in the pending Senate debate about immigration, where the Arizona senator has been working with the man who beat Romney a few years ago, Ted Kennedy, to come up with a comprehensive reform package. "I do not believe amnesty is the right course for the 11 or 12 million illegal immigrants who are living here. It didn't work in the 1980s. It's not going to work in the 2000s either."
He also criticized McCain for not supporting a federal constitutional amendment to limit marriage to heterosexual couples.
Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?
Ronald Reagan used to call it the "eleventh commandment" that Republicans not attack each other. Why help the Democrats? In this race, it’s unlikely anyone will be counting up that high. With the two leading contenders for the nomination, Giuliani and McCain, riding high notwithstanding issue positions that put them at odds with major elements of the Republican base, the potential for negativity is even greater on the GOP side than among Democrats.
Democrats can fight about who is or isn’t sorry about being for the war in Iraq five years ago, but all of them are against it now. They are all pro-choice, pro-gay rights, and against guns. It’s not that they have no reason to fight: politics is a reason to fight. It’s that they don’t have much to fight about. Republicans have no such problems.
Frontrunners almost always call for positive campaigns in the hopes of maintaining their leads. Being positive is all well and good when you’re ahead, especially if you can use it as a club to force your opponents not to go after you, or to pay a price when they do. That’s why Hillary Clinton is plainly ready and willing to be as negative as necessary in order to maintain the positive tone of the Democratic race. If everybody’s nice, or at least nice enough, she wins.
The problem comes when you’re behind. Cease fires cement the status quo. When you’re behind, you need to shake the tree and move the numbers. While it’s technically possible to unglue people from their initial preferences by the force of a positive appeal, the more common approach requires a healthy dose of negative information about what’s wrong with the candidate they support before they’re willing to be persuaded by anyone else. They have to be free before you can win them. And while campaigns are always wishing that the press would do this particular dirty work for them, the reality is that often the only way you get the press to focus on what’s wrong with your opponent is by saying it yourself.
As many as 20 states are planning to hold primaries on Feb. 5. Unlike the Democrats, Republicans can win a state’s entire delegation by winning the primary or caucus; the winner-take-all system further increases the likelihood that the contest will end on the same day it goes into high gear. Past efforts to accelerate the nomination process have tended to make the even earlier states – notably Iowa and New Hampshire – more important in providing, or dissipating, a candidate’s momentum.
Whether this pattern will hold with the still more accelerated calendar of 2008 isn’t clear, but the danger for candidates in the second tier is that if they haven’t broken out by Feb. 5, they won’t be competitive in what is almost a national primary.
So was it really a surprise that days after dissing the rancorous Democrats, Romney went to New Hampshire and went on the attack? He’s running third in what for him may be a must-win neighbor, and he’s loaded with ammunition. Why wouldn’t he use it? And if the best known of the Republican second tier has no choice but to attack the frontrunners, can the lesser-knowns be far behind?
Welcome to the real rancor in the race for the White House. The eleventh commandment notwithstanding, it’s probably only a matter of time before someone even starts asking what it is that Rudy Giuliani actually did to make him the hero of 9/11. And the good news for Democrats is that it’s likely to be a Republican who does the asking.
Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was previously Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and was the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System,” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for foxnews.com.