Even as Republicans ride a roller-coaster primary to pick their 2012 presidential nominee, they're preparing for a relentlessly negative general election campaign.
Barack Obama may have won the White House with an uplifting "change you can believe in" message, but without accomplishing promises of bipartisanship and turning around the economy, his path to re-election inevitably requires making the Republican option unpalatable.
"His campaign will largely be focused on tearing down the Republican nominee. It will be a very different campaign than we saw four years ago,'' said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who, like most Republican leaders, sees Obama as unable to win on his record.
Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich is the latest Republican contender to threaten Mitt Romney's front-runner status, but the White House and its allies months ago signaled that they expect Romney to be the nominee. Through interviews, Web videos and modest TV advertising purchases, Democrats are tearing down the former Massachusetts governor.
Obama's playbook for beating Romney may have been written nearly two decades ago by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy: Mix questions about Romney's sincerity and core principles with attacks on his record and commitment to middle-class Americans.
Romney knows what's coming. He went through it, painfully, with a crushing defeat by Kennedy.
The epic 1994 Massachusetts Senate race featured a very different Romney — a moderate political newcomer eschewing Ronald Reagan and social conservatism — but it offers considerable parallels to today.
There was a toxic electorate for incumbents, with voters in Massachusetts and across the country fed up with career politicians and looking for change. Romney positioned himself as a political outsider ready to bring his business acumen to bear. He cast Kennedy as a dinosaur who never had a real job, just as most every day on the trail now he suggests Obama is clueless about the economy.
Kennedy enjoyed a reservoir of good will with voters, but this was the year of the "Gingrich Revolution" when Republicans gained 54 House seats and eight Senate seats. People across the country were hurting and fed up with the status quo.
Even after three decades in the Senate, Kennedy's record as one of the most effective legislators in Washington was far less known to many of his constituents than the fodder he provided the tabloids: The Palm Beach rape trial of his nephew William Kennedy Smith was still fresh in people's memories, and 1994 marked the 25th anniversary of Chappaquiddick.
"Mitt ran as the man with a Mr. Clean image, whose hard work had blessed him with a fortune, and who was now going to 'give something back' by bringing good, honest business principles to the messy game of politics,'' Kennedy recounted in his memoir, True Compass. "I remember one newspaper profile of him that described him singing only hymns and as having even his dog kneel down for nightly prayers."
Kennedy began running TV spots in June 1994 — earlier than he ever had before — but continued to underestimate the Romney threat.
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Romney is no lock for the 2012 nomination. For nearly a year, he has struggled to excite much of the Republican base. Florida Republicans start casting absentee votes by month's end, and three state polls released last week found Gingrich with more than a 2-1 advantage.
Still, Romney keeps seeing his chief rivals rise and fall, while he holds steady.
"Every other person that has either come near Romney or risen above him turns out to have fallen down,'' said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Romney supporter dismissing the notion that Romney faces an enthusiasm problem.
"If you define enthusiasm as being at 30 percent one day and then 8 percent two weeks later, I call that schizophrenia, not enthusiasm."
Democratic consultant Bob Shrum helped run Kennedy's 1994 race against Romney: "I see the same Romney today as in 1994 in the sense that this is all about a Romney business plan: What do the customers want? I'll give that to them."
The more potent general election attack on Romney for 2012, Shrum suggested, also played a key role in 1994.
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By Labor Day, polls showed a dead heat, and Kennedy agreed for the first time in his career to launch negative ads against an opponent.
The campaign found ample ammunition digging into Romney's career leading the private equity firm Bain Capital, which helped drive his net worth to as much as $250 million, according to a 2007 filing. Romney had touted his record creating jobs, but the leveraged buyout business often involves slashing jobs while making millions in profits and management fees.
In September, the Kennedy campaign dispatched media consultant Tad Devine and a film crew to Indiana to interview workers laid off from a paper products plant that had been bought by a Bain Capital subsidiary. Shrum had a script, but the campaign tossed it as soon as they saw how effective the workers were in their own words.
"I'd like to say to the people of Massachusetts: 'If you think it can't happen to you, think again. We thought it wouldn't happen here, either,' " said one of the workers featured in ads.
Romney had taken a leave of absence from Bain six months before the subsidiary bought the Indiana plant, but the late September TV spots were nonetheless devastating. Kennedy began pulling away in the polls.
"He characterized me as a cold-hearted, unfeeling robber baron. Lies are hard to dispel. If this were the business world, Kennedy would be facing a pretty serious lawsuit," Romney told the Boston Globe after the election.
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Obama risks losing some of the personal good will he retains with voters by running an excessively negative campaign. But parts of Romney's Bain record are sure to come up if he wins the nomination, if not by Obama directly, then by surrogates.
In Florida, for instance, Bain and Goldman Sachs Group in 1994 acquired a medical diagnostics firm and shut down two plants in Miami employing 850 people. Though the debt-saddled company ultimately went bankrupt, news reports said Bain and Goldman still earned a $280 million profit on the deal.
"Bain Capital invested in many businesses; while not every business was successful, the firm had an excellent overall track record and created jobs with well-known companies like Staples, Domino's, and Sports Authority," said Romney campaign spokesman Ryan Williams. "These experiences give Mr. Romney the unique skills and capabilities to do what President Obama has failed to do: focus on job creation and turn around our nation's faltering economy."
Shrum said the cases when Bain profited off deals where workers lost jobs are likely to be part of a broader campaign narrative: Romney is on the side of Wall Street and Obama is on the side of middle-class Americans. Whether it's Romney opposing the Democrats' Wall Street reform efforts or floating the idea — and later backtracking — of privatizing veterans' health care, the issues can mesh with Romney's record at Bain.
"His history in the private sector is married to his policy positions,'' said Shrum. "(Obama) has what's ideal in a campaign — when your positive is the other guy's weakness. … Fundamentally, Obama can make the same argument that Ted Kennedy was making in 1994: 'Who's going to stand up for you?' "
The Obama campaign has already adopted that message. Spokesman Ben LaBolt said Romney's economic philosophy is one area where the former Bain executive has been consistent: "He believes the only thing that matters is investor profits with no regard to consequences for middle-class families."
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By the time Kennedy and Romney faced off in October for a televised debate at Faneuil Hall, Kennedy had the momentum. The incumbent senator faced low expectations, but by all accounts dominated the night.
On Nov. 8, Republicans swept elections across the country. In Massachusetts, Kennedy won by a margin of 58 percent to 41 percent.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.