Will GOP Elites Let Mitt Reduce Ricky To Smoking Ruins?

Yesterday I said it, you said it, pretty much everybody said it: after the unpleasant surprise of losing the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses to Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and his Super PAC would methodically begin to unleash the advertising equivalent of the Firebombing of Dresden on poor Ricky in upcoming primary states like Arizona, Michigan and Ohio. It sure worked to cut Newt Gingrich down to size in Iowa and Florida, and it appears Mitt will maintain the kind of financial advantage over Santorum and Gingrich needed to achieve command of the airways wherever he chooses.

But interestingly, there are a few Republican voices out there suggesting that Mitt does not truly have the freedom to treat Santorum like he treated Newt. Why? Because conservatives opinion-leaders tend to like Ricky, and they don’t much like Newt, who has been honking them off one at a time for decades. Moreover, Gingrich’s serial surges in the polls frightened some conservatives into thinking he might romp to the nomination and then lead the party to a defeat of biblical proportions. At a minimum, conservative leaders will not cooperate with a trash-Ricky effort, and they might even push back, suggests columnist Matt Lewis:

One appealing attribute is that Santorum is somewhat of a wonkish intellectual type. This appeals to conservative pundits who fear the tea part set might nominate someone who would make them look like a rube to their cosmopolitan friends. As the Washington Post’s in-house Romney cheerleader, Jennifer Rubin, wrote, Santorum “is a well-educated man who cites (without pretense) everyone from John Adams to C.S. Lewis. He’s someone who thinks it important to know things — and know them in detail if you’re going to run for the presidency.”

And consider National Review’s infamous editorial, tearing down Gingrich (and Bachmann and Perry). That same piece praised Santorum as “an effective legislator” and included him among the candidates who “deserve serious consideration….”

Romney must tread lightly when attacking Santorum. And he won’t be able to count on the help of his willing accomplices in the conservative media this time around…

Additionally, there’s pretty strong anecdotal evidence that Mitt (and for that matter, Gingrich) have been overdoing the visigothic attacks on each other, benefitting Santorum, who personal favorability ratings have remained high even as Mitt’s and Newt’s have sagged. Mitt gets a pretty strong hint today from the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal:

The former Massachusetts Governor also isn’t winning friends with his relentlessly negative campaign. He first chopped up Rick Perry by running hard to the right on immigration. Then his attack ads tore apart Newt Gingrich in Iowa and Florida—in part because they revealed truths about Mr. Gingrich’s prodigal politics on Freddie Mac and other things.

Now his political team’s instinct will be to dig into its oppo research and savage Mr. Santorum. This may get Mr. Romney to 50.1% of the GOP delegates, but he’d be a weaker nominee for it. The low GOP turnout in early primary states is one sign of his weakness. What Mr. Romney needs is to make a better, positive case for his candidacy beyond his business resume.

In any event, even if Santorum gets relatively kind treatment from Romney, it’s unlikely the same will be true of Gingrich, for whom Ricky’s sudden burst of success is an existential threat. You can expect to hear a lot from Newt and his Super PAC about earmarks, Medicare Rx, the national right-to-work bill, and other of Ricky’s heresies. So long as Adelson’s still writing checks, Gingrich has little or nothing to lose.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.