The long and fractious Republican presidential primary is reaching its predictable conclusion, with Mitt Romney finally strengthening his hold on the party’s nomination.
It’s been a twisted ride for the former Massachusetts Governor, whose once-assured frontrunner status has been repeatedly shaken by a boom-and-bust primary that saw a half-dozen of his rivals rise to the top of the field only to self-destruct.
In a new e-book, Inside The Circus, Politico’s star Washington insider Mike Allen and former Newsweek editor Evan Thomas go behind-the-scenes of the Republican zombie campaigns, pulling back the curtain on the political machinations and egos that have shaped the 2012 primary so far.
The book is the second instalment in Politico’s Playbook 2012 digital book series, and traces the Republican primary race from the Iowa caucuses to Super Tuesday. Through interviews with political operatives, advisors, ex-staffers, and other insiders, Allen and Thomas uncover some revealing details about the campaigns, shedding light on the GOP soap opera that has unfolded over the past three months.
Romney's primary wins have largely been a result of his campaign's willingness -- indeed, eagerness -- to go negative on their primary opponents.
A senior Romney advisor told Allen and Thomas that the senior communications staff sees its rivals as 'zombie opponents,' capable of rising up from the dead at any moment.
'So their view is 'He's dead, but wait a minute, let's dig up the casket, open it up. We got more bullets in our gun. Let's keep shooting. You never know.''
The campaign, like everyone else in the country, had totally ignored the former Pennsylvania Senator as he plugged away on the campaign trail in Iowa, driving around the state in a Dodge Ram truck and a sweater vest. It wasn't until five days before the Iowa caucuses that Romney's advisors realised that they did not have an opposition research book on Santorum.
Ignoring Santorum's slow Iowa surge was a rare slipup for the Romney camp. Back in November, Barbara Beach, a senior Romney advisor in Iowa, cautioned that Santorum was sneaking up on the rest of the field, but the national team largely overlooked the warning.
Even after Santorum won the Iowa caucuses, the Romney campaign underestimated the threat. After strong wins in Florida and Nevada, Romney was confident that he would win the Feb. 7 caucuses in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri.
'This is impregnable,' Romney's political director Rich Beeson told donors on the eve of the caucuses.
But Santorum swept all three contests, turning the race into a two-man dog fight that Romney is only now starting to win.
The question of whether to release Romney's tax returns caused a rare rift on the campaign, and planted the first seeds of doubt about Romney's ability to lock up the nomination.
As it became clear that the tax issue was hurting his campaign and cementing his Rich Guy image, Romney ignored advice from senior strategist Stuart Stevens and refused to release his returns. Frustrated, three senior advisors were anonymously quoted by Politico, saying that they 'hoped' the candidate would release the returns.
Romney's surprising stubbornness on the issue raised alarm bells among the GOP Establishment.
'The whole way he handled the tax thing was a disaster,' a 'prominent Republican political figure' told Allen and Thomas. 'It was the beginning of people questioning him on his lack of judgement on what it takes to run for president. You have to have your taxes out....That was -- if you really tracked the polls and everything -- that was when people started to turn their nose up. It looked like he was hiding something.'
According to Allen and Thomas, Washington's GOP Establishment was seriously alarmed by the possibility that Santorum might be the party's nominee.
'He's a volatile guy,' one GOP strategist told Allen and Thomas, adding that Santorum is 'a jerk' and 'an arsehole.'
'He had, like, no friends in the Senate,' the source continued. 'He's kind of obnoxious. He's a know-it-all guy who got elected at a very young age in the House, got into the Senate.'
Of all the candidates, Santorum has also been the least friendly with his opponents.
'Santorum's not the friendliest guy,' a rival campaign manager told Allen and Thomas. 'He's not a guy you want to hang out with.'
As Romney regains his grasp on the Republican nomination, the now-assured frontrunner endorsements have started to flood in from key Republican party leaders, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and his political mentor, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
But Romney could have won Bush's endorsement a lot earlier. Sources close to the former Florida Governor told Allen and Thomas that Bush was ready to give his support to Romney in late January, but Romney failed to ask. Romney did call Bush -- to ask him for advice on how to get support from Rubio.
As Newt Gingrich's quixotic presidential bid crashed and burned, the campaign still put a high priority on 'maintaining' Gingrich's wife Callista. A source close to the campaign told Allen and Thomas that Mrs. Gingrich even has an aide Photoshop her pictures to remove wrinkles and stray hairs before they are sent out.
'Everything goes through her,' a staffer told Allen and Thomas. The campaign, which is hemorrhaging money, pays for Callista to return home to Washington on Sundays so that she can sing in the choir at the Basilica of the National Shrine. And at her suggestion, she and Gingrich returned home before Super Tuesday to spend a weekend walking under the cherry blossoms.
Although most political campaigns tend to be a little wary of reporters, the Romney team is remarkably paranoid about the press.
'Our press relations are horrible,' one Romney advisor complained to Allen and Thomas, blaming the 'weird little bubble' at Romney headquarters. 'There's a folklore in Boston that we have to go around reporters because reporters are all for Obama.'
Throughout the Republican primary, political-watchers have noted that the influential conservative aggregator The Drudge Report has been suspiciously kind to Romney, while brutalizing his GOP opponents.
The favourable Romney slant is mostly attributed to the close friendship between the site's founder, Matt Drudge, and Romney's low-profile campaign manager Matt Rhoades.
Romney's opponents have unhappily accepted that there is little they can do about the bias, although Santorum recently blasted the site's 'Romney propaganda.'
Former RNC Chair Michael Steele is to blame for the GOP's never-ending primary circus — he actually WANTED a brokered convention
Most Beltway Republicans now lament the RNC's 2010 decision to lengthen the party's presidential primary by eliminating most winner-take-all states, which directly paved the way for this year's interminable race.
According to Allen and Thomas, the Romney campaign blames the decision on former RNC Chair Michael Steele.
'He was completely incompetent,' a Romney advisor told Allen and Thomas. According to that advisor, Steele called a bunch of Wall Street donors to celebrate the possibility of a brokered convention, or as he put it, 'a convention that would mean something.' The bewildered donors then called the Romney advisor: 'This guy thinks it should go all the way to the convention. Isn't that bad?'
According to Allen and Thomas, Romney works out in black Lululemon shorts, a surprisingly trendy choice for the typically stiff politician.
He is also apparently a gym germaphobe. A reporter who ran into Romney at a hotel gym in Arizona told Allen and Thomas that the candidate 'fastidiously cleaned the elliptical trainer to make sure it was free of germs, both before and after the workout.'
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