Despite his reputation as a weather vane, Mitt Romney is actually a man of firm conviction. He strongly believes that any rival who threatens his nomination deserves to be thoroughly trashed.Which is why the gods of negativity have already begun to hurl thunderbolts at Rick Santorum.It will be rocky for Rick over the next 10 days in Michigan and Arizona (which vote on Feb. 28), and in Ohio as well (a March 6 state where he appears to be running strong), because if Mitt Romney believes in anything, it’s the ruthless power of negative advertising. Newt Gingrich has been largely neutralized, after all, because Mitt’s deep-pocket pals at his “independent” Super PAC took Newt apart with thousands of TV attacks in the crucial Florida contest.The assumption in the Mitt camp is that the same kind of assault will work against Santorum. We’ll see about that.But the dirty deed needs to be done, if only because Santorum is now at parity with Romney in the national Republican polls – and, more importantly, he’s surging among base conservatives in Michigan…Michigan, for Pete’s sake! The state where Romney was born! The state where Romney’s dad once reigned! It would be a massive PR disaster if Romney loses Michigan, and he darn well knows it. As Romney himself says in a new Michigan TV ad, “Michigan has been my home, and this is personal.”This is personal…No way he’ll let some interloper trespass his property and steal his lawn furniture. That kind of person needs to be lit up. The latest CNN poll reports that only 34 percent of Republican voters view Santorum unfavorably, so clearly it’s imperative to push that number northward.The first anti-Santorum ad is already on the air in the aforementioned states, and there will be many more. Dave Carney, a GOP strategist who’s watching from the sidelines, told Reuters yesterday that, by the end of this month, “Rick Santorum won’t recognize himself when he looks in the mirror. He’ll get the stuffing knocked out of him.” And another unaligned party strategist, Ed Rogers, told MSNBC last night, “He’s about to see the kitchen sink, up close and personal.”Here’s the text of that first TV assault, crafted by the “independent” Restore Our Future. It targets Santorum’s Senate tenure: “How did Rick Santorum actually vote? Santorum voted to raise the debt limit five times. And for billions in wasteful projects, including the Bridge To Nowhere. In a single session, Santorum co-sponsored 51 bills to increase spending and zero to cut spending. Santorum even voted to raise his own pay. And joined Hillary Clinton to let convicted felons vote. Rick Santorum – big spender, Washington insider.”Clearly, Romney’s Super PAC friends are aiming the ad at tea-partying fiscal conservatives. The problem, however, is that none of those alleged sins are particularly striking or unique. Yeah, Santorum voted multiple times to raise the debt limit, but so did his Republican colleagues. They did it to preserve the nation’s credit rating. Are we to believe that Romney, as a senator, would have voted to lower our credit rating?Yeah, Santorum voted for wasteful earmark projects, but so did a lot of the Republican senators who are now supporting Romney. (And Romney himself, as governor of Massachusetts, constantly sought federal earmarks.) Yeah, Santorum did vote to raise his own pay (the pay hike was one provision in a massive appropriations bill), but those senatorial Romney supporters voted for it as well.As for the Hillary Clinton reference, suffice it to say that Hillary-bashing went out of style four or five years ago. I doubt that it hurts Santorum to be linked to the most admired woman in public life.And there was an amusing moment on Tuesday when a Romney surrogate, former senator Jim Talent, sought to attack Santorum as a big spender in a conference call with reporters. Talent said: “He voted for Medicare Part D, a big expansion of a federal entitlement” – a reference to the ’03 prescription drug plan. Reporters then brought up the inconvenient fact that Talent himself had voted for the very same thing.In other words, Santorum may be a tougher target than Newt. The only House Speaker ever to be rebuked for ethics violations was uniquely ripe for a takedown. But even though Romney’s attacks on Newt were successful, the attacker suffered collateral damage – by driving up his own negatives, by leaving the impression that he had little affirmative to say about himself. Can he risk going that route again?
(By the way, Romney’s Super PAC won’t be highlighting Santorum’s extremist social/religious views. That tactic would only backfire. Michigan’s cultural conservatives would say, “Wow, didja hear Santorum believes that women impregnated by their rapists should be forced to give birth because those babies are a gift from God? Awesome. Let’s vote for him!”)Santorum, meanwhile, has launched an ad that depicts Romney as a Rambo character who fires mud from an automatic weapon. It’s pretty funny – or at least what passes for funny in politics today. It’s a negative ad aimed at negative ads, but it’s basically a popgun aimed at a howitzer, because Romney and his allies are expected to outspend Santorum by roughly 30-1. Still, if Santorum can survive the barrage, if he’s still on his feet two weeks from now, Romney may have to rethink his assumptions about the benefits of big money and massive weaponry.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1