It's Game On: Should Mitt Take the Gloves Off?

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney last night eclipsed the magic number of delegates — 1,144 — to secure the Republican nomination for president.

As President Obama has been gradually bringing Romney’s name onto the campaign trail, saying that he was patiently waiting for the GOP duke-out to wind down, a signal came that the president is ready for full-tilt campaign warfare.

Obama called Romney last night to congratulate him on securing the nomination. “President Obama said that he looked forward to an important and healthy debate about America’s future, and wished Governor Romney and his family well throughout the upcoming campaign,” Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said in a statement.

The Romney camp characterized the call, in which Romney thanked Obama for the gesture, as “brief and cordial.”

Brief is right: they might as well have just said “game on.”

Now, Romney faces the challenge of not being the Republicans’ John Kerry.

Yes, they’re both from Massachusetts and have faced questions about uptight personalities. But Kerry banked on George W. Bush’s unpopularity to win the White House, and it didn’t work. As DNC Chairmwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz sniped that Romney got to the nod after “a year of tepid support against one of the weakest fields in history,” Romney is riding a wave of “anybody but Obama” momentum in a coalescing Republican Party.

There’s got to be something more in the Romney playbook besides a fear of four more years of Obama if he wants to be the first one past the finish line. But how deep should he dig?

One train of punditry says that Romney would do well to take the high road — aka Economy Class — by letting the blows from the Obama camp roll by, not taking any questionable swings at Obama, and refocusing the conversation on the economy every single time an attack comes his way. Problem with this strategy is that in this day and age, campaigns have less control over the conversation than ever before — and this boils down to new media, mainstream media, and social media setting the agenda.

There’s another train of punditry that says Romney should unload on the deepest, darkest scandals that have plagued this administration, from Fast & Furious to Solyndra, and still others who want Romney to go for the jugular of Obama’s truthiness, maybe even go hunt for birth certificates with Donald Trump.

Simply put: Should Mitt go dirty?

Back in 2004, I opined for the Wall Street Journal that pledges to run clean campaigns were tiresome, facetious and actually took valuable insight away from voters. Don’t you want to see how the candidate really is — under pressure, in a fight, gloves off — than be surprised by the real man or woman once he or she is elected into office? And don’t you want to see how a candidate can stand up and fight if necessary as a reflection of how said candidate would tackle everything from terrorists to China to runaway government agencies as commander in chief?

Let’s not classify as “dirty,” as some do, anything that targets your opponent’s real policy positions. For example, the Planned Parenthood ads against Romney don’t exactly convey any message that should make the candidate cry foul: he’s against abortion, they slam him for being anti-abortion. An ad campaign meant to lure or repel swing voters by stating your opponent’s affirmed policy positions shouldn’t be classified as an attack — but it should warrant a full-throated response.

Both sides are fighting for the middle, that growing block of independents, that swing voter in a swing state. That is a fact of campaign life and why a number of party purists on both sides of the aisle lose a bit of heart after primary season. Do you woo those swing voters by preaching to your choir, or by laying out the case bit by startling bit why the status quo is unacceptable?

Everybody begins a campaign saying that they’re going be positive and run on their achievements. First, recognize that this ain’t gonna happen. The Obama camp already killed this promise, but that breach isn’t going to keep the required number of voters angst-ridden and unable to sleep.

It will be especially hard for the Romney camp to run on pure positivity — hope and change from the Obama years, if you will — because the protracted primary season got so dirty. Every debate was buoyed by an undercurrent of seething contempt between the players, and even now some of those players are offering tepid, teeth-gritting, somewhat-endorsements for the man who finished on top of the heap. Nobody’s fooled that this campaign is all sweetness and light. Even those who are not fans of Romney wished that his most infuriated debate moments would translate into how he’d confront Obama on the trail, sort of like those who wanted Newt Gingrich to get the nod if only to see him confront Obama with a primetime debate history lesson.

Say Romney rips a page out of the Chicagoland playbook and turns this campaign into an all-out mudfest. Say he sticks to the economy meme and positive ads with soaring music and fluttering American flags.

Even if Romney never utters Saul Alinsky’s name, there will be plenty willing to push out the deeper swings at Obama. You know, those “the Karl and Koch brothers contract killers over there in super PAC land,” as Obama’s chief strategist, David “Positive Campaign” Axelrod, called them.

If you go after your opponent through a PAC or a surrogate, though, are you seen as weaker for leaving the wet work to someone else as you shake hands, talk sunny and positive, and reap the benefits from an attack?

What if you look for the attack squad in your VP? Joe Biden is certainly less shy about taking a dig at Romney than Obama.

Who would be able to wage that kind of battle on the right? Well, Trump. Some Tea Partiers that are most likely not on Romney’s shortlist. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who bluntly said he wouldn’t answer the phone if the veep call came, so don’t expect Mitt to dial the number. And, of course, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.).

If the campaign goes with the buzz trend about picking a safe, steady Midwesterner, the campaign strategy will likely be safe positivity and hammering at the administration’s economic record. Rob Portman? Not a wet-work guy. If the political playing field was the mob, he’d be the accountant, not the hitman. Tim Pawlenty? Ditto.

Whether or not a fan of dirty campaigning, one has to acknowledge that everything in politics is fair game and be prepared for what’s going to come flying out of the gate.

There are things that the Obama campaign hasn’t even begun to mention in the fight against Romney, nuggets saved up in their war chest for, say, when they need a political “get out of jail free” card. Obama’s camp hasn’t even started hitting at Romney’s “I don’t care about the very poor” gaffe. In or out of context, it’s tucked away in their stratagem.

If Romney wants to win, he may want to fight back with a defense other than a focus on how Obama tanked the economy. In fact, he’ll want to consider how he’s going to go on offense. In fact, with polls indicating better public perception about the state of the economy including economic confidence at  four-year high, he’ll want to diversify his talking points.

Whether his strategy will be pit bull or Portuguese water dog remains to be seen.