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Romney bought the nomination with flood of nasty ads

By Donna Brazile, CNN Contributor
updated 10:24 AM EDT, Thu April 12, 2012
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks to supporters Wednesday in Hartford, Connecticut.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks to supporters Wednesday in Hartford, Connecticut.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Donna Brazile: Mitt Romney outspent his rivals in the GOP race by huge margins
  • She says his relentlessly negative advertising won him the race, but not affection of voters
  • Romney took extreme positions that will brand his image and will not be easily forgotten
  • Brazile: The currency that determines an election should be the candidate's ideas

Editor's note: Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. She is a nationally syndicated columnist, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, and author of "Cooking with Grease." She was manager for the Gore-Lieberman presidential campaign in 2000.

(CNN) -- Maybe money can't buy you love, but it buys a nomination.

Ask Mitt Romney. He outspent Rick Santorum 7-1 to win Illinois, outspent Newt Gingrich 4-1 to take Florida, and more than doubled the competition's spending in Wisconsin. In Pennsylvania, the next big state, Romney had bought nearly $2 million in TV ads even though his main rival, Santorum, had yet to spend a dollar in his home state.

Now he won't have to, having suspended his campaign and vindicated Romney's tactics.

Donna Brazile
Donna Brazile

Santorum's national communications director, Hogan Gidley, said that Romney's tactics "shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. This is Mitt Romney's pattern. He comes in and carpet bombs his opponents in every state with massive ad buys."

But knowing Romney's strategy and doing something about it are two different things, as his Republican opponents have learned.

When Mark Twain said, "We have the best government that money can buy," I suspect he said it with sarcasm, and some disgust. Romney, though, takes it literally.

Of course, over-spending on election campaigns hardly constitutes a breach of propriety, especially these days. Mass media buys are expensive, and niche voter groups can be difficult to reach. But the way Romney, supported by his super PAC allies, has bought the Republican nomination should give us all pause, for three reasons.

First, there's who he bought. I'm not talking just about the delegates; that's obvious. I'm talking about the kind of political base he and his super PACs purchased. Second, there's what he bought -- the overwhelmingly negative ads. And third, there's why he bought what he bought.

With his eye on the general election, Romney wasn't so much buying the new Republican base -- the ultraconservative, once-and-future tea partiers -- as he was bribing them. It was part of a tried-and-true Nixonian strategy: Run to the extreme right in the primaries, then run as fast as you can to the middle in the general election.

Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom infamously compared the strategy to an Etch A Sketch, saying, "You hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes."

But there's a critical difference between Nixon's strategy and the one Romney now owns: Nixon had credibility with the far right and didn't put it at risk when he rushed to the center. The strategy works only if you've at least shared an ideological beer before crashing the extremist party.

Opinion: Romney is stronger than he seems

The Etch A Sketch comment was so telling because it rang so true. It remains to be seen how loyal or enthusiastic the very conservative Republican voters will be when Romney sounds more moderate tones.

Second, we should be concerned about the kind of ads Romney bought. Unable to present conservative bona fides based on his record, Romney's voter outreach was almost exclusively negative. Yes, he won big in Florida, but he did so because a jaw-dropping 99% of his ads were negative.

Before Santorum suspended his campaign, Romney planned to humiliate the former senator with an ad that reminded voters of Santorum's embarrassing loss in 2006. It was to be the blitzkrieg's opening salvo. We'll never know how much influence that ad -- temporarily suspended when Santorum's daughter was hospitalized -- or the even nastier ads that would surely have followed had on Santorum's decision. Judging from the primary debris Romney has left behind, his less-well-funded opponent had enough.

Why does that matter? It matters because life isn't an Etch A Sketch and the currency that determines an election should be a candidate's ideas.

You can't erase your past or run from your record or evade accountability to the truth. Romney's negative, vicious approach to the primary has affected the all-important "swing independents." In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, 64% said Obama "seems more friendly and likeable" than Romney. Only 26% felt the other way. And 55% found Obama more inspiring than Romney; 29% had the opposite view.

Romney should recognize that running for president is more like a tattoo than an Etch A Sketch: The image you create will stick on you, and you can't just shake it off.

This brings us to the third point: Why did Romney buy the election by carpet-bombing his opponents with negative ads and pretending for the first time in his political life to be "severely conservative"? The hypocrisy -- and distortions of the truth -- are so blatant, so obvious, that not only Democrats, but even Romney's Republican opponents are astounded at the audacity, and that he gets away with it.

Romney might have bought the nomination, but voters may well make him pay for the way he did it. Whether they buy his expensive, negative and opportunistic transformation in the fall will be a test of more than just the candidate -- it will be a test of our democracy.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Donna Brazile.

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