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Romney under fire

Conservative groups launch campaigns to derail Romney's prominence in GOP primary

Conservative leaders and commentators, such as FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe, are among those who have directly targeted Mitt Romney. Conservative leaders and commentators, such as FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe, are among those who have directly targeted Mitt Romney.
By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / July 2, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Joe Miller, a former US Senate candidate from Alaska, has been spending his days in his law offices in Fairbanks with an almost singular focus: making sure fellow Republican Mitt Romney does not win his party’s presidential nomination.

Miller, through a little-known group called the Western Representation PAC, is planning a $500,000 ad campaign with a chief goal of dirtying up the national front-runner - in terms that are far more personal and aggressive than Romney’s rivals for the nomination have used.

“Right now [our focus] is making sure that Romney, who’s very clearly a RINO, doesn’t walk away with the nomination,’’ said Miller, using the acronym for Republican In Name Only. “We’re trying to save the country. And with Romney at the helm, it’s not going to get saved. Romney is just going to be a disaster for this country.’’

Three conservative groups within the Republican Party and a conservative radio talk-show host are raising alarms about the former Massachusetts governor, trying to knock him off a pedestal he has built through a campaign network, fund-raising base, and name recognition that exceeds any of his current rivals.

The strongly divergent views of Romney illustrate some of the fissures within the GOP - between the party establishment and the newer Tea Party movement - and they threaten to divide the party in a way that could have larger ramifications. Some are already worried that there would be a third-party candidacy if Romney wins the nomination. The developments demonstrate both why Romney is such a shaky front-runner and why there is still a yearning within some Republican quarters for candidates who might have a better shot at uniting the party to enter the race.

It is not unusual to have bitter primary fights - something Democrats are known for more than Republicans - but in the past the infighting was largely driven by a candidate who embodied the angst within a party. Ronald Reagan, for example, challenged President Gerald Ford in 1976. But what is happening now is that these groups, not any one candidate, are becoming the vessels for dissatisfaction with Romney.

“Since there isn’t anybody taking the fight to Romney for them, they’re doing it themselves,’’ said Linda L. Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College. “In that sense, what you’re seeing is different from other intraparty factional fights that we’ve seen in the GOP.’’

The Romney critics do not pull their punches. “On some of the key issues that are so fundamentally important, Mitt Romney’s not only wrong but consistently wrong and unwilling to reconsider his position,’’ said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, a conservative group that helped launch the Tea Party movement. “He’s got the establishment, he’s got name ID, he’s got money. But he doesn’t have the hearts and minds of the grassroots activists that are going to win campaigns.’’

Romney’s campaign declined to respond directly to the attacks, but a spokeswoman said he would attempt to connect with various segments within the Republican Party.

“Governor Romney, over the course of the primary, is going to go out and talk to voters, and hopes that they like his message of creating jobs and fixing the economy,’’ said Gail Gitcho, the campaign’s communications director.

In several polls, Romney has received support from those who say they identify with the Tea Party movement, perhaps an indication that while Romney is not trusted by the more visible Tea Party activists, he is more widely accepted by those who self-identify with the movement.

Romney’s fellow contenders have largely avoided direct attacks on him so far. In the debate last month in New Hampshire, for example, several candidates passed on chances to directly critique Romney’s record on issues such as abortion and health care.

But as Romney has continued to quietly build his campaign network - and as polls show him in the lead - some in the party fear that Romney will become so formidable that the primaries will not be competitive.

Some have problems with Romney’s past positions and his political flexibility. Others worry about his belief that humans contribute to global warming. Much of the opposition is coming from those who are active in the Tea Party movement.

“The engine of the Tea Party is really about authenticity - that is what the Tea Party smells, almost at a genetic level,’’ said Michael Graham, a conservative talk radio personality at Boston-based 96.9-FM who several months ago started a website called AnyoneButMitt.com. “The only thing that is authentic about Mitt Romney is his inauthenticity.’’

Graham said that if Romney were the nominee, a third-party candidate would emerge, which could split the conservative vote and make an easier path for President Obama’s reelection.

Others who have had it out with Romney include the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, which is highly influential in Republican politics and has written that Romney might as well be Obama’s running mate, given his position on health care.

The antitax Club for Growth has written a blistering summary of Romney’s fiscal positions, saying “he has developed an unshakeable reputation as a flip-flopper’’ and that he “supports big government solutions to health care and opposes progrowth tax code reform - positions that are simply opposite to those supported by true economic conservatives.’’

FreedomWorks does not yet have plans to target Romney, but the group is putting together a report card of how candidates fare on 10 issues. Romney will fail on at least three of those issues, Kibbe said.

So far, the Western Representation PAC appears to be the only GOP group that is committing money to target Romney.

The political action committee was started in 2008 by Roger Stockton, a firefighter from Carson City, Nev., and his son, Dustin, a sporting-goods-store manager. They formed the group to try to defeat Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

In March, the Western Representation PAC hired Miller to be its chairman. Miller, who ran with both Tea Party support and the backing of the state’s former governor Sarah Palin, made national news last year when he defeated incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary.

Murkowski then ran a write-in campaign, narrowly defeating Miller in the general election.

Miller said his group’s focus in the GOP presidential contest right now is taking down Romney, not in recruiting someone else into the field.

“Right now we’re taking on the frontrunner, the person with the largest war chest and the highest likelihood of winning the nomination because he’s not the answer for the country,’’ Miller said. “We certainly are not going to comment on the quality of the other candidates.’’

Miller said the PAC opposes Romney for several reasons, but he never focused on health care during a 30-minute conversation. Instead, he emphasized Romney’s changed positions on several issues and the fees that he raised in Massachusetts.

Some activists feel the time is now to start pointing out some of the problems with Romney.

“It’s important to point out some of these fundamental problems with Romney now and try and shake up the field a little bit so there can be a more competitive process,’’ Kibbe said. “There should be a real concern among Republicans that Mitt Romney simply can’t win because he can’t hold the coalition together.’’

“It’s going to make for a really interesting battle,’’ he added. “It’s going to be more competitive than we’re used to, and that enfranchises a lot of voters that have been left out in the past.’’

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.