The Untenable "Dirty Tricks" Argument

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Feb. 29 2012 4:01 PM

The Untenable "Dirty Tricks" Argument

The alert went out from Romney HQ at 2:43, for a "No More Dirty Tricks" call beginning at 3:30.

Today, former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, U.S. Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio, Delegate Barbara Comstock of Virginia, Alaska Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell, Idaho Superintendent of Public Schools Tom Luna, and Former United States Treasurer Bay Buchanan will hold a press conference call to call on Rick Santorum to stop teaming up with Democrats in future Republican contests.
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The addition of Sununu -- whose state voted seven weeks ago -- told us what to be in store for. This would be a collection of rants, premised on the essential "loser" nature (Sununu's word) of Rick Santorum. One by one, the surrogates (save for Comstock, who got busy) explained why Romney's rival had no right to pull in Democratic voters. "Rick Santorum cheated!" reasoned Rep. Turner, right before telling Santorum to give back any delegates won with Democratic votes. Which delegates were those? Which districts in Michigan were swung by Democrats? "We don't have that information right now," said spokeswoman Gail Gitcho.

So what was the point of this? Hackle-raising. In 2008, John McCain won several key primaries on the strength of independent and Democratic support. Talk radio burned up with that news; Romney endorsers of the time, like Laura Ingraham, cited it as proof that Republicans were being denied a nominee. Did it speak to John McCain's broader appeal? That wasn't even a question; and if it was, McCain's loss to Barack Obama proved that crossover voting was poison.

One problem with this: Romney was not a virgin to crossover voting. He'd done it himself. He voted for Paul Tsongas in the 1992 Massachusetts primary (which Tsongas), back when Tsongas was the heterodox flat tax candidate. "When there was no real contest in the Republican primary," said Romney in 2007, "I’d vote in the Democrat primary, vote for the person who I thought would be the weakest opponent for the Republican." A pesky reporter asked what was different from Romney then and the Santorum fan of 2012.

"We would just disagree with the premise of that question," said Gitcho. "Never once has he employed these under-handed tactics. This was a blatant effort from Santorum to join forces with Obama."

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.