Mitt Romney has been increasing his assault on the Democratic front-runners recently. During a recent campaign swing, he returned to a theme found in his earliest speeches: "The Democratic candidates want to run the largest enterprise in the world—the government of the United States—and yet have never run a corner store.'' To make sure reporters get the point, Romney's campaign has sent e-mails highlighting this attack and links to local wire stories featuring it.
Republican voters usually like to hear their candidates beat up the opposition, so the broad attack helps Romney in his effort to look like the party front-runner. But according to Romney insiders, the former Massachusetts governor is not just aiming at Clinton, Obama, and Edwards. His other, perhaps more salient target, is fellow Republican Fred Thompson. Like the Democratic front-runners, Fred Thompson has also never run anything, though he has pretended to run all kinds of things in his many films. Romney is laying the groundwork against Thompson now and plans to make the charge explicitly when the actor gets into the race.
Meanwhile, lolling on the sidelines seems to be working nicely for Thompson. He's second in national polls, in key early states like Iowa and South Carolina and in big states like Florida. As the dream candidate of conservatives who are disappointed with the current Republican field, Thompson threatens Romney's efforts to cultivate social conservatives, so that's why the former Massachusetts governor has been the most aggressive of the Republican candidates in going after him.
The Romney campaign was also thinking about Thompson when it produced its latest television ad about the depravity of modern culture. The ad is primarily an assault on the extended metaphor, but its purpose is to appeal to social conservative voters who think the country is on the wrong track. (This is also why Romney has picked a fake fight with Barack Obama over sex education.) The ad's secondary function is to show Republicans that only Romney can talk about values. Thompson can compete with Romney in opposing abortion and gay marriage, but as a former actor, he's compromised on the subject of cleaning up sex and violence in movies and television. "Why didn't he speak out loudly about Hollywood when he was of Hollywood?" Romney may ask in a future debate.
To draw contrasts between their guy and Thompson, Romney allies are working behind the scenes, and even Thompson's wife is fair game. June Bond, a Republican from Spartanburg, introduced Ann Romney at a recent rally as her husband's starter wife and trophy wife "all in one." This called up a loaded phrase for Thompson's much younger second wife from a New York Times piece.
Romney, who has been crossing the country getting little sleep, shaking an endless string of hands and eating spongy food at fund-raisers is reportedly a little miffed that Thompson thinks he can coast into the nomination. In his public remarks though, Romney is sticking to oblique rather than direct attacks. In a recent interview with the Washington Examiner, he made a not-too-subtle allusion to Thompson's reputation for laziness. "Will he do the work it takes to become the president?" asked Romney. "To beat Hillary Clinton ... you're going to have to work like crazy." Of course, Romney hopes Thompson never has a chance to face the Democratic front-runner. And so before the actor even gets into the race, Romney is trying to create more work than he can handle.