November 26, 2007

Gloves Coming Off?

The Republican primary fights have mostly focused on one-way attacks on Hillary Clinton, but that appears to be changing. Increasingly specific criticisms have started between Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, both ironically using Hillary as a benchmark. Have the gloves come off for Republicans with six weeks left to go before the Iowa caucuses?

In a big strategic shift, Rudy Giuliani hammered Mitt Romney’s record Sunday on three fronts, saying it was time to “take the mask off and take a look at what kind of governor was he.”

Using some of the toughest language of his campaign, Giuliani, in an interview with Politico, slammed Romney on health care, crime and taxes. At the same time he portrayed the one-time moderate as a hypocrite on a host of social issues who lives “in a glass house.” It was easily the most sweeping attack Giuliani has delivered against Romney in this campaign. ....

Judging by Giuliani's rhetoric, he has appeared for weeks to be running more against New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, than any of his Republican foes. But as his poll numbers have dipped in this critical state, the former New York mayor has stepped up his campaign schedule and TV presence and also begun to take dead aim at Romney, whom polls show as the GOP front-runner here.

Giuliani's team has not campaigned hard for Iowa, where Romney built a strong organization early and has not relinquished its lead. In New Hampshire, where both men can expect some proximate support, Romney has gathered surprising strength. Giuliani obviously feels the need to push hard to keep Romney from winning the first two primary contests.

Given the attention these negative attacks receive, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that this has become a two-man race. Romney has targeted Giuliani for quite a while, while avoiding confrontation with any other campaign. Giuliani's return volleys endorse the notion that Romney has developed into his chief rival, at least strategically; he also has avoided engaging in extended verbal brickbats with John McCain, Fred Thompson, or Mike Huckabee, who has gathered considerable strength in Iowa lately.

In that sense, the news of Giuliani's attack has much more significance. It shows that Team Rudy still worried about opening-act momentum in the primaries despite his insistence that the big-state strategy will suffice. Rudy leads in Florida, New York, and California, which will deliver a big chunk of what he needs to win the nomination -- but if Romney takes Iowa and New Hampshire, those states may take a second look at Romney and his organizational strength.

Will these intramural attacks hurt the Republican Party's chance to win the White House by diminishing the eventual nominee? In this case, probably not, since the Democrats have begun the same process. Neither party will have a coronation for their nominee, which the Democrats expected for Hillary Clinton. And so far, the attacks have been on policy and performance rather than scandals or ethics, which allows voters to have all of their issues aired properly -- and leaves a path open for unity after the primaries conclude.


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