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Time for Mitt Romney to take the mitts off?

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At the height of Rick Perry’s rise in the polls, Mitt Romney’s strategists previewed for me their plan to bring him down. They said they would focus on Barack Obama, while the other candidates attacked Perry’s record, and the media dug up embarrassing stories about his past. They would wait for Perry to blow himself up in the debates, and they would use illegal immigration to drive a wedge between Perry and his conservative base. They would tar Perry as career politician while contrasting his record with Romney’s 25 years in the private sector.

The strategy worked exactly as they promised.

When Herman Cain replaced Perry as the front-runner, Team Romney applied a similar strategy against him. They let the other candidates attack Cain and his 9-9-9 plan, watched quietly as Cain made a series of gaffes on abortion and foreign policy, and looked on as reporters dug through Cain’s past, turning up allegations of sexual harassment and extramarital affairs. They continued to focus on Obama while Cain slid in the polls. It worked again.

Now the Romney campaign is applying the same strategy to the new GOP front-runner, Newt Gingrich. They are letting Michele Bachmann and other candidates attack Gingrich — highlighting his support for cap-and-trade, amnesty for illegal immigrants and an individual health-care mandate. They are focusing their attention on Obama while the press digs into Gingrich’s past — including the business empire he built in Washington after being evicted from the House speakership, and the $1.5 million he made from disgraced mortgage giant Freddie Mac.

The question is: Will it work again? Here is why it may not.

Gingrich is likely to have staying power that Perry and Cain did not enjoy for one simple reason: His conservative supporters have nowhere else to go. While Romney succeeded in bringing down his surging opponents, he failed to win over virtually any of their defecting supporters. His RealClearPolitics polling average now stands at 20.4 percent, and since entering the race he has rarely exceeded 25 percent in any poll. It seems that no matter what happens with the rest of the field, three-quarters of the GOP electorate wants someone — anyone — but Romney.

Cain’s withdrawal from the race this past weekend further limits the options of this anyone-but-Mitt majority. Despite the gaffes and allegations, Cain still enjoyed the support of about 14 percent of the GOP electorate nationally — including 12 percent in Iowa, 16.7 percent in South Carolina and 19.3 percent in Florida. These voters are not likely to go to Romney, but many could go to Gingrich — especially if Cain endorses his fellow Georgian, as he is expected to do today. Winning over the majority of Cain supporters would give Gingrich nearly 40 percent of the GOP vote. In other words, Cain’s withdrawal gives Gingrich an unprecedented chance to consolidate conservative support around his candidacy.

Romney’s chances now depend on his ability to stop that from happening. He needs Bachmann, Perry and Santorum to pick up as many Cain supporters as possible, so that his conservative opposition remains fragmented. He needs the other candidates to step up their attacks, calling into question Gingrich’s conservative bona fides. And, above all, Romney needs to start winning over at least some of that reluctant 75 percent of the GOP electorate.

The only way he will do so is if those voters conclude that Gingrich is unelectable. There is ample evidence to make that case. With Gingrich as the nominee, one Romney adviser told me, the election will become a race about yesterday instead of tomorrow. It will be about his tumultuous speakership rather than Obama’s failed presidency. That’s not the kind of race you want to run, Team Romney says.

For now, the Romney campaign is leaving that argument to others. But it may not be able to do so for long. Romney strategists liken the campaign to an Indy 500 race — you drive steady, let the other cars rub metal and spin out, and make sure you are there in the last lap. The problem is, you need eventually to rub some metal yourself, and to make a move if want to cross the finish line first. Today, with Gingrich surging, Cain’s supporters up for grabs and Iowa caucuses less than a month away, the time to make that move is running out.

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