Friday, Jan. 27, 2012 | 2 a.m.
WASHINGTON — Barbs have become a political weapon of choice this election season, especially between former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who are neck-and-neck in the race to be crowned the front-runner for the Republican nomination.
High-priced attack ads have already swung elections in Iowa and South Carolina. Now, they are arching their way toward Nevada, in preparation for the GOP caucus a week from Saturday.
On the one hand, you have Romney, who Gingrich supporters are trying to paint as the man who took your job away.
On the other, Gingrich, who Romney supporters want you to know as the man in the back pocket of the mortgage bank that took your house away.
They’re both potentially poisonous messages for a state like economically ravaged Nevada, first in unemployment and foreclosures.
But there’s no consensus about whose weapon packs the harder punch.
“Probably the job thing’s a little bit worse. You know, because the housing thing, that’s something people can understand a little easier, people who shouldn’t have gotten houses, got houses. It pushed up the market and things fell apart,” said UNLV political science professor David Damore. “With the jobs, it’s kind of unclear why things happened. Construction workers were working one day and the next day they weren’t.”
“I think actually the housing argument against Gingrich will be more effective than what comes across as an anti-business tone against Romney,” said Fred Lokken, political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College. “This is a fiscally conservative state, and there’s a lot of respect for wealth and entrepreneurship. I think they risk playing (the jobs message) much less effectively than (the housing message) in the state that has the worst housing crisis.”
Nevada may be a swing state, but it’s not usually much of a trendsetter when it comes to national elections.
Yet since Sheldon and Miriam Adelson started making eye-popping donations to the pro-Newt Gingrich “Winning the Future” PAC, the Silver State has become a post-Citizens United crucible where campaign messages meet cold hard cash.
This is a new era of money in politics, since the Supreme Court determined in 2010 that corporate donations to noncandidate political action committees weren’t subject to any limits. The result — expensive attack ads — has been as visible on the campaign trail as the candidates’ busses.
“Negative ads, as much as people like to say they hate them, work,” said Chuck Muth, a conservative strategist and paid consultant for “Winning our Future,” a pro-Gingrich PAC that has not yet aired any television ads in Nevada, but is inquiring about pricing of spots.
“Winning our Future” recently financed a smear piece on Romney, telling the tale of ruined families who had worked for companies bought by Bain, the holding company of which Romney used to be CEO. It was eventually deemed so misleading that Gingrich had to call for it to be taken off the air — but only after the damage was done, at least in South Carolina.
“It worked. It changed the dynamic,” Muth said. “And it will work in Nevada ... Romney’s support is very fluid — a lot of people are supporting him because they assumed he was the inevitable nominee. If Gingrich comes in with negative ads, he’s going to pull some of that support away from Romney.”
Romney’s people are dismissing that sort of talk as bluster that will blow over cooler heads in Nevada.
“On the national level, there are going to be a whole host of back-and-forth message issues from all kinds of campaigns, talking about all kinds of things,” said Ryan Erwin, Romney’s campaign manager in Nevada. “Despite the ebb and flow of a national campaign that has seen every candidate have their two weeks or three weeks or four weeks of spotlight and eventually move on, Gov. Romney has kept it between the lines and stayed steady.”
But he’s also aired a few attacks of Gingrich of his own — “contrast” ads, his campaign calls them — that are already getting airplay in the Silver State.
“Everything in the ad is accurate, everything is truthful. And I think it is a fair question when you have a group of candidates who are Washington insiders, versus one candidate who has been very successful in the private sector, to contrast those two experiences,” Erwin said. “Romney has been fully vetted. He has been through the attack machine. He has been a consistent target of attacks since this campaign began. He’s steady and he’s prepared to take the party on his shoulders and carry it to victory in November.”
Of course, November is what has many Republican strategists concerned. Whether or not an attack ad sways the Republican electorate, it hangs around — and when it hangs around, Democrats are more easily able to swoop in and adopt it as their own.
“The attacks on the root cause of the housing problem will be more effective in the general ... It would be a stretch to believe that either Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich caused the housing market’s problem here in Nevada,” said Nevada Republican strategist Robert Uithoven, unaffiliated in this election. “I think both Romney and Gingrich would probably be better off running ads on how they plan to get people back to work, or why their specific tax proposals would more benefit Nevada families than their opponents’. I think that’s where the campaign can be won or lost, at least here in Nevada.”
Were the Nevada caucuses happening in a vacuum, the candidates might be tempted to spin a more general-election focused message to win over voters.
“You’ve been campaigning over there in three of the most politically irrelevant states I can think of,” Lokken said of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Of the three, only New Hampshire could be considered a swing state. “In Nevada, you start developing the first national dynamic of any of these campaigns.”
Demographically, Nevada is a pivot toward the national electorate, even when compared with Florida — a state that holds an infamous rank among decisive swing states. Plus, it’s the first stop on a primary and caucus swing through the Intermountain West, that continues on to Colorado and then Arizona in February.
But there’s not much time, once the candidates turn their attention West, to craft a Nevada-specific message — and just as other states will be watching to see what happens in Nevada, Nevada is not immune to what’s been happening in other states.
“We’ll have a few days from them, only a few days, to hear from them on Nevada issues,” Uithoven said. “If Romney wins Florida, it has huge impact for him here in Nevada — then, he should win as he was always expected to. If Newt wins in Florida, he continues on with the momentum and you can almost make him the favorite to win Nevada because there is so little time for Romney to stop that momentum ... he has much less time to rebound.
“There’s not a television ad that either one of these guys can come up with that will have the impact of the results of Florida,” Uithoven said.