Mitt Romney Opts for Battle on Two Fronts

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Who is Mitt Romney?

The GOP candidate's decision to fight on two political fronts ahead of Super Tuesday has left undecided Republican voters to wonder which candidate the campaign wants them to vote for.

Mitt Romney

Romney is still locked in a struggle with his Republican opponents, but he's also going after President Barack Obama now, as the former Massachusetts governor has hurled attacks over the past week at the three men he sees as the key obstacles to his goal of reaching the White House.

Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Obama could represent a deeper conflict of self-identity for Romney.

Gingrich flanked Romney in South Carolina about his life as a private equity titan who wouldn't release his tax returns. Santorum won conservative voters in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri by touting his conservative record in the Senate against Romney's as a governor. Obama and his campaign have jabbed Romney on various issues as they see the candidate as the likely GOP nominee.

The problem is that Romney has made it difficult for voters to find a clear message as to which Republican he is: The one who can beat the president or the one who can't deflect a couple of has-been GOP players.

Romney is familiar with, but hasn't won his GOP battle.

"As Newt Gingrich visits Ohio, he still has questions he needs to answer about his work for the lobbyists at Freddie Mac," Romney said last Tuesday in a statement. "Ohioans have suffered during the housing crisis, while Speaker Gingrich was using his influence and connections to promote Freddie Mac's agenda in Washington."

Romney's campaign made a strategic decision to highlight Gingrich's Freddie Mac problem in Florida to parry the former speaker's unending condemnations of the former governor's private equity work that cut jobs and bankrupted companies.

Romney pointed out that Gingrich's consulting for the mortgage giant played an integral role in the housing crisis, which hit Florida harder than most other U.S. states. Essentially, Romney admitted that some of his private equity projects failed, but he said failure came with the territory and that he had more successes across his business career. On the other hand, as Romney told it, Gingrich helped a mortgage corporation even when it was clear they had promoted unhealthy lending practices.

Romney rolled to a 14.5-percentage-point victory in Florida and left Gingrich's campaign strapped for cash, yet only a week ago the former governor was criticizing the former House speaker.

"Speaker Gingrich and Senator Santorum have over half a century's worth of time in Washington between them. They can't fix our country's spending problem because they helped create it," Andrea Saul, a Romney spokeswoman, said last Wednesday in a statement.

The comment came a day after Santorum swept Romney in three state primary races where Gingrich garnered low numbers. Romney's camp has likely crippled the former speaker's campaign, but there's always the worry that Santorum and Obama will pick up the private equity storyline and use it in different or similar ways against Romney. No matter how hard he tries to disregard that past, Romney's opponents will likely use his business record against him.

Santorum is the latest challenger to question Romney's commitment to conservatism. The former senator released an ad that touts his "full-spectrum" conservatism on Tuesday.

"A full-spectrum conservative, Rick Santorum is rock-solid on values issues, a favorite of the Tea party for fighting corruption and taxpayer abuse, has more foreign policy credentials than any candidate and Rick's made-in-the-USA jobs plan will make America an economic superpower again," the ad said.

As the video runs, two printed quotations run at the bottom of the advertisement with critical remarks about Romney. "Among national voters Santorum now runs slightly stronger against Obama than Romney," one quotation from Rasmussen Reports says. Then a Jan. 9 Wall Street Journal article is quoted: "Overall, we'd score Mr. Santorum's economic agenda as bolder than Mr. Romney's."

Santorum has used his three victories from last Tuesday as newfound authority to hurl attacks at Romney in order to win hesitant Republicans.

Romney ramped up his conservative rhetoric at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington last Friday and used it as a platform to convince the GOP base of his allegiances.

Romney has been unable to shake concerns that he is a moderate northeastern politician. If Romney wins the nomination, he must keep enthusiasm among Republican-base voters, because they're a critical foundation to upsetting the incumbent president.

Even if Santorum and Gingrich and every other conservative standard bearer endorses Romney in the general election, the former governor would still have to hope it's enough to motivate GOP turnout.

Which brings us to his second front: Beating Obama.

Romney's organization and funding show the innards of a campaign prepared for a United States presidential election, but they haven't escaped the clutches of disgruntled party members. Part of the reason might be that Romney hasn't convinced Republicans he really is all that different from Obama.

Obama's re-election chances could rely heavily on unemployment numbers in November. January's jobs report showed a decline in the unemployment rate to 8.3% from 8.5%.

This doesn't mean unemployment is permanently trending downwards, but the favorable data has been awkward for Romney to campaign against.

"This week Obama's been trying to take a bow for 8.3% unemployment. Not so fast, Mr. President. This is the 36th straight month with unemployment above the red line your own administration drew," Romney said Feb. 4.

In October, Romney said that unemployment "hasn't been below 8% since Obama's had his way." The 8% unemployment threshold may have seemed far off in October, but now it's not out of the question.

It would be twisted to say that Romney would hope for high unemployment come November, but a cornerstone of his campaign has been the poor economy under Obama.

Romney created the image of himself as the successful businessman who directed a private equity firm that created jobs, saved companies and drove American business. If the economy improves substantially it might be more difficult for Romney to stick with that angle, but he could pivot to re-brand his general election image.

None of that is possible, however, until he grabs the nomination. So for now, Romney must pay close attention to Santorum, Gingrich and Ron Paul while still lobbing attacks at Obama from afar.

-- Written by Joe Deaux in New York.

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