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Friday, February 24, 2012

Rick Santorum Conspiracy: Paul and Romney in Cahoots

When your candidate has a really rotten debate, the temptation is great to create a distraction. However, if the distraction is harebrained and unflattering to your candidate, you wind up making things worse.

That is essentially what happened yesterday when Rick Santorum and his team came out with a conspiracy theory that Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) and Mitt Romney were in cahoots. A source close to the Paul campaign told me last night that the Paul camp sees this as an effort by senior Santorum adviser John Brabender to distract the media from the fact that his candidate was “not ready for primetime.” The Romney camp did not return a request for comment. (Romney staffers no doubt believe in the adage that you should never get in the way when your opponent is doing harm to himself.)

Indeed, on one hand, you can say it was foolish for Santorum to cook up an excuse for his dismal outing. Santorum already has a reputation for being thin-skinned and peevish. This tactic certainly made him seem like a poor sport.

To some extent, however, the gambit worked. When you can get major media figures and longtime GOP operatives tweeting away about non-existent deals (A Cabinet position! A VP slot for Rand Paul!) based on nothing but the accusations of a wounded candidate’s flack, that is no small feat. But, in fact, the explanations for Ron Paul’s very obvious disdain for Santorum, and, to a lesser extent, Newt Gingrich are much simpler than a Roswell-esque theory.

Both campaigns confirm that Paul and Romney are personally friendly, as are their wives. They are both of the same generation, with married kids and grandkids on whom they dote. They’ve both been happily married for decades. (It is widely known that Ron Paul’s wife was friendly with Gingrich’s second wife.)

It is human nature to show greater deference and civility to those whom you like. What the press is missing, however, is the degree to which Gingrich, Santorum and their staffs have acted in ways that the Paul camp would justifiably perceive as dismissive and rude. When I asked Brabender for reaction to the accusation that he was practicing the art of distraction, he e-mailed, “It sounds like something the Romney campaign told the Paul campaign to say.” It is precisely this sort of denigration — that Paul and his staff are unable to think on their own or advance their own interests — that has fueled Paul’s desire to skewer Santorum. The source close to the Paul camp responded, “Once again demonstrates the total lack of respect for Ron Paul, his supporters, and his campaign team held by Santorum and his top advisor. When you build coalitions and treat your fellow Republicans the Santorum-Brabender way you end up losing in the general by double digits in the swing states like Pennsylvania.” You get the picture now?

It has been going on for some time now. Santorum publicly called Paul “disgusting.” Gingrich has been telling others to get out of the race for months. In the debate, an eye-rolling Santorum couldn’t contain his disdain for Paul, who returned the favor with blow after blow to Santorum’s self-image of a “courageous” conservative warrior (wasn’t that self-definition by Santorum an unintentional moment of Newt-like ego?) .

At a staff level, the Romney team, perhaps due to an awareness of the personal relationship between the candidates, has been cordial and professional toward Paul’s people. These things matter.

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