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Forget the pleasantries. The criticism grows sharper by the day in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
The reason: Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, John McCain and Fred Thompson are bunched at the top and trying to emerge with voting to begin in just a matter of weeks.
“We’re now into a 90-day sprint and each of the campaigns is struggling for a strategy,” said Scott Reed, Republican Bob Dole’s 1996 campaign manager. “Who do they take out, who do they go after and who do they risk alienating by being the aggressor? They’re all trying to figure that out.”
There’s obvious risk.
Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt went negative in the 2004 Democratic primary, and their strategies backfired. They lost when voters gravitated toward above-the-fray candidates John Kerry and John Edwards.
Four years later, the leading Republican candidates — Thompson, Giuliani, Romney and McCain — are keenly aware that criticizing one another could turn off a certain GOP segment and boost their own negative images in voters’ minds.
But given the current circumstances, all of them, to varying degrees, figure the risk is worth the potential benefit — breaking out of the pack to become the clear front-runner.
So, they are taking on one another with increased frequency and heightened ferocity. Thus far, the criticism largely has been limited to rhetoric. Some candidates have poked at their rivals in a handful of radio commercials, but the contrasts have been subtle. None has run negative television ads. Yet.
On Monday, Thompson became the latest candidate to criticize.
The former Tennessee senator suggested the former New York mayor, a one-time Democrat who backs abortion rights and gay rights, was a liberal and questioned his loyalty to the GOP.
“Some think the way to beat the Democrats next year is to be more like them. I could not disagree more,” Thompson said without naming Giuliani during a speech to the Conservative Party of New York. “My friends, I suggest it’s not time for psychological flexibilities in terms of our principles. That’s the surefire way of making sure we don’t win.”
He was more direct in a television interview with Fox News Channel, saying: “I don’t think that the mayor has ever claimed to be a conservative.” Then, he noted that Giuliani sought and won the Liberal Party’s endorsement in his first mayoral race, and that while in office he broke from the GOP to back Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo for re-election.
Giuliani, in turn, dispatched a senior aide to issue a statement critical of Thompson, who has no executive experience and few Senate accomplishments. He also sent a former deputy mayor to prod the “Law & Order” star.
“Some candidates talk the talk about Republican principles. Others actually have a proven track record of governing according to Republican principles,” said Randy Mastro, who served Giuliani as mayor.
Mindful of the possible pitfalls of going negative, Giuliani says he has tried to stick to what he calls Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment of not criticizing a member of his own party. Typically, he assails his GOP opponents only after they go after him. To keep that clean appearance, he sometimes dispatches aides and surrogates to do the dirty work.
National polls show Giuliani maintaining his lead but Thompson giving him a chase. A state-by-state look shows Romney leading in Iowa, while races in other important states like New Hampshire, Michigan and South Carolina are toss-ups.
Explaining the negativity, Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, said: “It’s still anybody’s ball game at this point.”
“They all are trying to draw distinctions when there are relatively few policy differences among them on the main issues of the day” — Iraq and terrorism among them, he said. Thus, Ayres said, the candidates are focused on other areas like leadership, backgrounds, character and history.
In the tit-for-tat over the past week:
More contrasts are likely this week. The Republican hopefuls gather in Washington to speak at events hosted by four influential party or GOP-aligned groups.
Liz Sidoti covers presidential politics for the Associated Press.