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Mitt Romney And Rick Santorum's Bizarre February Boxing Match

First Posted: 02/29/2012 11:48 am Updated: 02/29/2012 12:19 pm

WASHINGTON -- It's a leap year, which means Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum will have to live one more day in February 2012, a month they'd both like to forget.

The two presidential candidates battled each other every day for most of the month. And while they beat up on each other plenty, the month may be best remembered for how it turned into a contest of who could punch themselves in the face more often.

For former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, the miscues were behavioral, springing out of an inability to connect with voters. For former Sen. Santorum (R-Pa.) they were rhetorical, coming from a habit of talking about his deeply held beliefs in controversial and provocative language.

Romney said things that reinforced his image as an awkward person who is so wealthy that he cannot relate to everyday folk -- and cannot generate enthusiasm within his own party as a result.

Santorum said things that sometimes excited the GOP base, but that either confused, misled or angered a wider audience. Some of his comments touched on issues worthy of debate, such as how to interpret the First Amendment. But he erred by saying things in an unhelpful and needlessly hyperbolic way. The Wall Street Journal's editorial board on Wednesday deemed it a lack of "political maturity."

The remarkable thing in February was how Romney and Santorum alternated screwups as if they were in a bizarre boxing match. One could not let a verbal gaffe by the other go without responding in kind. Not all of the flare ups were their fault or within their control. But all together, it created quite a spectacle that damaged both candidates.

On Feb. 8, one day after his huge wins in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri, Santorum launched a salvo against President Obama on the issue of religion, claiming that the White House is "taking faith and crushing it."

Two days later, on Feb. 10, Romney told the Conservative Political Action Conference that he was "severely conservative," a term that was not in his prepared remarks.

But that same day, Santorum said on CNN that he had misgivings about women in "frontline combat positions" because of "emotions that are involved."

On Feb. 12, Santorum's appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" generated headlines about past comments that he considers contraception "not okay." Even though Santorum said on the show Sunday that he would not ban contraception as president and that he was not focusing his campaign on social issues, that was what drew the most attention.

But on Feb. 16, Romney's goofiness showed up again, when he talked about how the trees in Michigan were "the right height." The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees immediately turned the video into an ad comparing Romney to a character in the movie "Anchorman."

Santorum struck back again two days later on Feb. 18, charging that Obama's Christian faith was based on a "phony theology." And then three days later, one week out from the Arizona and Michigan primaries, The Drudge Report dredged up comments by Santorum from 2008 about how "Satan has his sights on the United States of America."

Romney was not about to let Santorum end things there. Three days after the Satan story came to light, Romney went to Ford Field in downtown Detroit on Feb. 24, to deliver a speech on tax reform that contained few new details. He said his wife drives "a few Cadillacs." And the speech itself was overshadowed by press coverage that, fair or not, focused on the image of thousands of empty seats in the stadium surrounding Romney as he spoke to 1,000 or so folks on the football field.

The frequency with which Romney and Santorum tripped themselves up increased as they got closer to the primary on Tuesday. On Saturday, Feb. 25, Santorum responded to Romney's Ford Field fiasco by calling the president a "snob" for saying that most Americans should go to college.

The next morning, Romney went to the Daytona 500 and told reporters he didn't know much about NASCAR but did have "some great friends who are NASCAR team owners."

Around the same time, Santorum was on ABC's "This Week," doubling down on comments he made last fall that he wanted to "throw up" when he read President John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech on the separation of church and state.

The two candidates spent primary day on Tuesday cleaning up after themselves. Romney admitted he was hurting himself with his comments and pledged to do better, and Santorum said he wished he had not made the comment about throwing up.

But the month was a case study in why the Republican party is less than thrilled about its prospects for defeating the incumbent president in November. Its candidates are generally in line with each other on major policy issues, but keep getting in the way of their own messages.

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