02/29/2012 12:21 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mitt Romney Plans To Make Big Deal Out Of Rick Santorum's Outreach To Democrats, Despite Hypocrisy

Mitt Romney may have won the Michigan primary -- er ... the statewide vote in the Michigan primary, anyway -- but he's not leaving the state on some sort of cloud of serenity and contentment. Far from it! Instead, Romney exits his "home state" and its trees of a certain height that's just right harboring a grudge over Rick Santorum seeking crossover votes from Michigan Democrats in the state's open primary. Santorum's decision to do so sort of dovetailed with a liberal activist movement dubbed "Operation Hilarity" whose mission was to drive up Santorum's vote count and make trouble for Romney. But it basically boils down to Romney being pissed that Santorum -- you know ... tried to win.

Now, that tiny ball of hate that burns in the pit of Romney's stomach is apparently going to be some sort of animating force in his campaign. As Buzzfeed's McKay Coppins reported last night:

Mitt Romney's campaign will spend the next two weeks reminding Republicans around the country of Rick Santorum's last-minute attempt to convince Democrats to vote for him her ein Michigan, a Romney aide said Tuesday night.

"It's a major issue. [Santorum is] trying to pass himself off as the true conservative in the race, but he's supporting the liberal Democrat line against Governor Romney," said Ryan Williams, a spokesman for the Romney campaign.

He added of Santorum's efforts to find Democratic help in the state's open primary: "This isn't going anywhere."

There's a lot that's absurd about this. In the first place, it's hard to see how Romney manages to make an issue out of some Michigan robo-calls for the next two weeks. The news cycle simply moves too fast, and the issue is of such momentary interest. Those two factors alone make the effort unsustainable.

But beyond that, the fact remains that all Romney is doing is opening himself up to charges of hypocrisy. As Jonathan Chait pointed out yesterday, Romney really can't escape the fact that he's talked about casting strategic votes as a crossover voter to hurt the chances of Democratic frontrunners at great length. He has explained these votes in onerous detail. His often tortured explanations of his strategic voting process were offered to answer charges that he was not a true conservative. And in order to paint those votes as the authentic actions of a bona fide conservative, he very clearly promoted the strategy as an eminently wise thing for a rational political actor to do.

And it surely doesn't help that "The Daily Show" very deftly filleted Romney on this matter, using his own words -- and his strange giddy enthusiasm -- to point out the hypocrisy:

What's interesting about Romney taking this circuitous, and risky, path to criticizing Santorum, is that Santorum left Michigan with a lot of weaknesses exposed. He spent the lead-up to the primary leaping into odd rabbit holes and making discomfiting remarks that blew back on him -- his super PAC sugar daddy Foster Friess' "aspirin" crack, his own "education is for snobs" remark -- these did him no end of harm. Prior to last night, Santorum admitted that he'd have liked to take back his remark that John F. Kennedy's speech on religious freedom made him want to vomit.

And it was pretty clear that Santorum was similarly rueful during his post-primary speech last night. He led off his remarks with a lengthy preamble about the educated women in his family and how remarkable they were, in a very transparent attempt to patch up the damage he'd done to his brand with voters near the center of the political spectrum. Of all the stemwinders we've heard from these candidates on these primary nights, none were as openly self-aware of the candidate's vulnerabilities as Santorum's was on Tuesday.

If it were any other election year, and any other candidate, the way you'd dispatch Santorum at this point would be to make a grand electability argument, and point out that his extreme positions are disqualifying in the general election. But this is not that year and Romney is not that candidate. Romney can only go so far in arguing over who is the "true conservative" in the race. While he's already admitted that he's not willing to "light his hair on fire" in order to rile up the GOP base, he can't afford to alienate them too much. And there are plenty of conservative voters who like Santorum's extreme positions -- an uncomfortable amount of them apparently live in Michigan, and may yet deliver the larger share of the delegate yield to Santorum. If Santorum knew how to dogwhistle at them, he wouldn't be having these problems. But as it is, Romney could really use their votes, so he's left to suggest that Santorum is taking "the liberal Democrat line" in the race. (It's hard to imagine that too many people would find this convincing, given the fact that Santorum is by no means a liberal.)

As Benjy Sarlin reports this morning, Romney -- who called Santorum's appeal to crossover voters the "dirty tricks of a desperate campaign" -- is already fundraising on the issue, having sent an email to supporters in which he tries to link Santorum to President Barack Obama's "billion-dollar machine" and decries Obama and Santorum's "pathetic tag team efforts." For his part, Santorum says that he'll continue trying to bring Democratic voters into his fold. And why not? If you're the Santorum campaign, you look at Romney having to make small-donor fundraising pitches after this thin win in Michigan, and it tells you all you need to know about which candidate is more "desperate."

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