Turning to the General Election, Romney Escalates His Tit-For-Tat Campaign

With the Republican primaries effectively over, the real war has begun. And while the next six months will be marked by talk of tactical shifts, all reports suggest that Mitt Romney‘s campaign has settled on an initial strategy. Romney HQ will not be picking its battles. It intends to fight them all.

During the past two weeks, Romney’s team has sharply countered every movement of President Obama’s campaign. The volleys of vitriol, over everything from foreign policy and young voters to the treatment of dogs, augur a general election every bit as brutal and bruising as the GOP primary.

On Thursday, as Vice President Joe Biden delivered a speech in New York extolling Obama’s foreign policy and assailing Romney’s, the presumptive Republican nominee’s campaign delivered a characteristically thorough response. During a briefing for reporters on Obama’s “failed foreign policy,” Pierre Prosper, a Romney adviser and former ambassador under George W. Bush, said Obama “has shown himself to be ineffective in this area, negotiating many times against himself and many times negotiating from a position of weakness. He’s constantly giving while the others take and we get nothing in return. Meanwhile weapons are produced, atrocities are committed, as I said, democracies are being trampled and U.S. influence wanes.” The campaign also blasted out an op-ed written by Richard Williamson, another former ambassador, who suggested that Obama’s foreign policy had approached “a juncture at which the inexperience and incompetence of a presidency crystallizes in the public mind. In short, we are approaching a Jimmy Carter moment.”

As the Obama campaign announced its formal campaign kickoff next weekend with events at colleges in Ohio and Virginia, Romney’s team tried to douse still-simmering affections between the President and young voters by arguing that Obama’s economic policies had created a dismal job market for graduates. “With one of every two recent college graduates unemployed or underemployed, President Obama won’t be able to skate by on empty rhetoric and campaign promises,” Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg said in a press release.

Continuing the fusillade, the campaign enlisted influential surrogates from both battlegrounds that Obama will visit — Ohio Senator Rob Portman and Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell — to blast out statements bemoaning the President’s “failed policies.” It also distributed a critical op-ed from the Republican lieutenant governor of Iowa, another swing state key to both parties’ Electoral College maps. Meanwhile, the RNC, which recently announced it would begin working in concert with Romney’s Boston-based campaign, filed a complaint alleging the White House had misused taxpayer funds by casting recent campaign travel as official business. (As the White House noted, when Democrats leveled the same charge against George W. Bush eight years ago, GOP bigwigs dismissed the complaint as baldly political.)

Romney’s tit-for-tat strategy has been taking shape since the GOP primary effectively ended in early April. Romney traveled to North Carolina last week to deliver a pre-buttal to Obama visit to Chapel Hill. His top aides appear to have adopted the mantra that every controversy, no matter how frivolous, merits a swift response. After Obama slow-jammed the news with Jimmy Fallon this week, Republican operatives rolled out the hashtag #notfunny in an attempt to juxtapose the President’s late-night laughs with Romney’s economic message. When Obama adviser David Axelrod invoked tired criticism of Romney’s canine treatment, Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom seized on equally silly Republican criticism of Obama for eating dog meat while a child in Indonesia, and tweeted a snapshot of the President with his dog Bo, accompanied by the caption: “In hindsight, a chilling photo.”

After a long and bitter primary campaign that raised Romney’s negatives, many Republicans have publicly counseled the campaign to lift its tone above the partisan fray and stick to positive themes that can inspire independent voters. (The New York Times today featured a piece detailing the many GOP politicians and observers making this argument, including Governors Mitch Daniels, Gary Herbert and Rick Snyder.) There is also the concern that the frenetic messaging, particularly the petty sniping, will drown out the economic agenda that forms the core of Romney’s own narrative.

Of course, all political campaigns — indeed, all presidential Administrations — are buffeted by unsolicited guidance. And Camp Romney has apparently settled on its strategy, at least for now. “This new phase of the campaign is marked by more direct engagement with President Obama and his campaign,” Politico quotes a senior Romney adviser as saying. In other words, let no broadside go unanswered. When you have built up the election as an epic clash between American exceptionalism and a declinist villain, a minimalist campaign just won’t do.

By Alex Altman

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