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Analysis: GOP
rivals target Romney

Analysis: GOP
rivals target Romney

Rivals have hit Mitt Romney on a range of issues including his abortion-rights reversal and his equivocations on gays and guns, and he's still standing--and standing tall. At least for now.

In the long run, months of GOP competitors chipping away at his conservative credentials could undermine his effort to be seen as the most conservative and most electable Republican.

''Mitt Romney is telling Iowans that he is firmly pro-life. Nothing could be further from the truth,'' an automated phone call by Sam Brownback's campaign tells Iowans. ''Stand up for life and say 'no' to Romney.'' The Kansas senator has stepped up his criticism of Romney, seeking an edge leading up to a Saturday test vote in Iowa.

Romney insists, ''I am pro-life.''

Brownback, and to some degree other Republicans, are going after Romney because the former Massachusetts governor leads in early primary state polling, including the leadoff Iowa caucuses, and most GOP candidates are fighting for the support of the same voters--conservatives who make up a significant part of the electorate.

''They're picking on the front-runner,'' said David Winston, a Republican pollster.

In contrast, Rudy Giuliani, who leads in national polls, is largely ignored as he trails Romney and others in early state surveys.

Romney's opponents are creating two narratives about him--''one, that he's not conservative enough, and, two, that he's a faker''--and those characterizations are certain to be used against him in the heat of the nomination fight, said Martin Kaplan, a scholar of politics at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication.

''I don't think that we've seen anything yet compared to the onslaught that he'll face leading into those early primaries,'' Kaplan said.

To a substantial degree, Romney himself has created opportunities for his opponents to assail him. He ran as a moderate in liberal Massachusetts during a failed 1994 U.S. Senate bid and a triumphant 2002 gubernatorial run. Now he's moved to the right as he seeks the support of conservatives.

While nationally Romney has steadily lagged other top candidates, his opponents' negative critiques haven't blunted his rise in Iowa and New Hampshire.

So far Romney has managed to inoculate himself from the hits by tightly controlling his campaign message. He's been the only Republican on the air in those states for months, having run millions of dollars worth of television ads promoting his right-leaning positions on family values, tax cuts, and immigration.

But others are sure to go on the air in those states eventually, likely questioning Romney's reversal on abortion and his equivocations on other issues to argue that he can't be trusted to uphold conservative values.

''The flip-flopping attack is the one where he is most vulnerable. The danger comes when he stays the front-runner in Iowa and New Hampshire and his opponents start advertising about this. Then he's got a problem,'' said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on political discourse at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center. However, she said Romney could withstand such an onslaught with a strong rebuttal and a healthy bank account.

Winston argued, ''There's a clear choice in front of people in terms of how they view this, either they believe he was sincere in how he changed his position or he was insincere, and I don't think any amount of statements from other candidates that he was insincere will change people's minds because of the obvious political motivation behind those assertions.''

John McCain initially proved to be the most aggressive against Romney. The Arizona senator's campaign spent months arguing that Romney changed positions on just about every issue. Those attacks have largely subsided as McCain's campaign has faltered.

Others have filled the vacuum.

Brownback, an underdog who has pinned his hopes on Iowa, has been the most ferocious. In single digits in polls, the Kansas senator is trying to gain ground by arguing that Romney is a conservative waffler. He's zeroed in on Romney's previous support for abortion rights in hopes of locking up the large number of anti-abortion voters in Iowa.

Aside from the automated phone call, his aides have sent Iowans and others e-mails and news releases questioning Romney's positions. This week Brownback himself repeatedly suggested that his rival was not sincere in pledging to protect the sanctity of life. ''This is the key moral issue of our day, and we don't need people equivocating on it or rediscovering things,'' Brownback says in a two-minute Web video.

Another Republican who trails in polls, Mike Huckabee, also has drawn distinctions with Romney, albeit more subtly. In a clear jab at Romney, the former Arkansas governor routinely says, ''I didn't become pro-life because of politics, I got into politics because I'm pro-life.''

Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado has been more blunt. In a recent e-mail to backers he references Romney's opposition to the comprehensive immigration reform bill Congress has debated, saying, ''I welcome converts--not someone driven by political expediency!'' (Liz Sidoti, AP)

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