Liberal Rick

So the emerging political story-line we’ve been following closely the last few days is this:

* Mitt Romney’s losing ground rapidly to Rick Santorum, who is consolidating support from “very conservative” voters, many of them previous supporters of Newt Gingrich, who has been in no small part demolished by negative ads from the Romney campaign and his Super-PAC.

* Conservatives palpably don’t want Romney to train his guns on Santorum, particularly in any way that can reinforce Democratic talking points against Rick. Romney’s forces also fear blowback from voters tired of intra-Republican nastiness.

* Maybe Romney can eventually bury Santorum with sheer money and the unspoken GOP elite conviction that Santorum’s a bad candidate with crazy extremist views on social issues. But time’s beginning to run short as big primaries approach.

It’s a conundrum for Romney, all right, but there are some signs today that his camp will begin to carefully go negative on Santorum for–wait for it!–being too liberal.

Here’s a report from The Hill‘s Justin Sink:

Mitt Romney’s campaign turned up the heat on Rick Santorum, accusing the former senator as being part of “the liberal wing” of the Republican Party on fiscal issues and saying “he’s wrong now to cast himself as the broad comprehensive conservative” as polls show the former Massachusetts governor losing ground in the race for the presidential nomination.

Romney surrogates attempted to highlight Santorum’s voting record on earmarks and increasing the debt ceiling as polls show strong conservatives increasingly coalescing around the former senator’s campaign.

“Mitt Romney has a much more comprehensively conservative record that Rick does,” said Sen. Jim Talent (R-MO), who argued that Santorum’s voting record on fiscal policies “shows he’s been in the liberal wing [of the party].”

Talent argued votes for the No Child Left Behind education reform package and against “right-to-work” legislation that would constrain unions underscored his liberal tendencies.

Here’s my favorite part:

Campaign surrogates repeatedly pointed to Santorum’s 18-percentage point loss in his 2006 Senate re-election campaign, arguing that voters had punished Santorum for abandoning conservative ideology.

“The reason he got beat, I think, was that he moved so far way from his fiscal conservative principles,” Rep. Billy Long (R-MO) argued on the call.

Yeah, that’s what happened in 2006, for sure.

We’ll see if this line of attack gets backed up in ads, and we’ll see if it works. But the cynical audacity of it is pretty impressive.

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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.