If the Washington Examiner's Byron York is right, conservative activists and insiders are urging former Gov. Mitt Romney not to unleash the Death Star on former Sen. Rick Santorum. I imagine Romney is going to want to say something to draw a contrast between himself and Santorum. The question is, what?
According to Buzzfeed's Ben Smith, the Romney campaign is aiming its fire as follows:
The first is a comparison to Barack Obama: "He's never run anything," said the advisor. The Pennyslvanian's experience is limited to roles as a legislator and legislative staffer. "The biggest thing he ever ran is his Senate office," said
The second is a challenge to Santorum's Washington experience.
"They're going to hit him very hard on earmarks, lobbying, voting to raise the federal debt limit five times," said the advisor. "The story of Santorum is going to be told over the next few weeks in a big way."
Going after earmarks accomplished exactly nothing for Sen. John McCain in 2008. I imagine the issue is a dead letter in 2012. The debt ceiling angle justly earned this derisory skepticism from the editors of National Review: "Does anyone believe that Romney truly thinks poorly of Santorum's votes to raise the debt ceiling?"
Santorum's lack of executive experience and lobbying work could ding him at the margins (especially for voters who aren't aware of the latter). But none of it adds up to anything close to the damning portfolio Romney had on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Romney's most promising line of attack, to my lights, is to tie Santorum thematically to the fiscal letdown of the Bush years.
Santorum likes to point to two particular episodes in his record as evidence that he is a conservative crusader against spending: welfare reform and social security reform. Santorum is right to accentuate his involvement in these two efforts as he was effective in the welfare reform fight and threw himself wholeheartedly into the social security reform fight, despite the fact that it ultimately doomed his electoral prospects in Pennsylvania. What this proves is that when Santorum is pointed in the right direction by GOP leadership, he can be a loyal and sometimes effective foot soldier.
However, the rest of Santorum's record—which Erick [Erickson] has recounted here on numerous occasions—indicates that Rick Santorum has never been a leader when it came to bucking the party leadership on anything—most especially including spending. On every major spending issue—Medicare Part D, earmarks, etc., Santorum was complicit with the worst aspects of the Bush administration's fiscal profligacy.
Going after Santorum on these terms would have particular salience with Tea Party Republicans, who have assimilated this narrative as a means of coping ideologically with the financial crisis as well as the electoral rout of Republicans in 2006 and 2008: "Conservatism didn't fail; it was betrayed."
Indeed, Santorum himself made this very argument at his recent CPAC speech:
"Conservatism did not fail our country. Conservatives failed conservatism," the former Pennsylvania senator said, seeming to mean the 2008 elections. "I think we have learned our lesson. And the lesson is that we will no longer abandon and apologize for the principles that made this country great—for a hollow victory in November."
There's an opening here for Romney to say: "Rick, you were there when conservatives failed conservatism. You had your chance. You failed, too. It's time to give someone not from Washington a try."