What a difference four years makes.
Mitt Romney, the pin cushion who was routinely ganged up on by John McCain, Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani in the 2008 GOP debates, is suddenly getting help from his former tormentors.
McCain has endorsed him. Huckabee has given him cover on anti-abortion and other issues and, equally important, declined to endorse a conservative alternative. Even Giuliani, the staunchest holdout, is denouncing Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry for criticizing Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital.
It’s a far cry from the bitter battle of the 2008 cycle, in which Romney was the candidate the other three loved to hate. All three, in an awkward, and now famous, scene captured in the campaign retrospective “Game Change,” mocked Romney as a phony during a men’s room break at one of the GOP debates that year – only to have the candidate walk into the room.
Both McCain and Huckabee have been among the chief inoculators for Romney from attacks by Gingrich and Perry over his tenure at the private equity firm he co-founded, Bain Capital, a topic that the Arizona senator and former Arkansas governor both saw fit to attack him on when they ran against him.
“To go after [him ] on really what is the essence of what we Republicans believe in about [the] economy, I think is a serious mistake and frankly I think it’s the last resort of a very desperate campaign,” McCain said Thursday. He had a word for the opposite of what Romney’s company was engaged in: “Communism.”
Huckabee emailed his list of supporters on Thursday, suggesting the time has come for Republicans to stop attacking one of their own on the issue.
“[I]t’s surprising to see so many Republicans embrace that left wing argument against capitalism,” he wrote in the email. “It’s terrible for the workers who lose their jobs, and nobody likes to see viable companies looted and destroyed. But if downsizing can turn around a failing company, then at least it prevents all the jobs from being lost, and it sets up a stronger company that can grow and start rehiring. The term for this among people who aren’t hostile to capitalism is ‘creative destruction.’ ”
Giuliani completed the hat trick Thursday morning, telling “Fox and Friends” that he was “shocked” by Gingrich and Perry.
“I’m outraged. … it’s ignorant, dumb. It’s building something we should be fighting in America – ignorance of the economic system,” Giuliani said. “What the hell are you doing, Newt?”
It was just a few weeks ago that Giuliani laced into Romney as a flip-flopper and had kind words for Gingrich. In Thursday’s interview, he described Romney as the candidate he was least likely to endorse, but condemned the Bain slams.
The unexpected support was a far cry from 2008, when Huckabee coined a memorable line Democrats are almost certain to revive in a general election: “[Romney] looks like the guy who fires you, not the guy who hires you.”
The tapestry of protection that the three offered would have been unimaginable even a year ago, when both Huckabee and Giuliani were still considering campaigns of their own. Huckabee and Romney had an especially high level of tension in the 2008 race, with the current front-runner airing a string of negative ads against the former Arkansas governor and eventual Iowa caucuses winner.
“He’s going to speak his mind … regardless of the tensions that were there four years ago,” said former Huckabee campaign manager Chip Saltsman. “The attacks on capitalism, as he sees it, are not good for the Republican party. … We’re also, as we go through this process, defining who we are in this party.”
Ed Rollins, who was Huckabee’s senior adviser in the 2008 race, offered a different logic for what’s happening.
“Huckabee is a good Christian. Forgiveness is part of his makeup,” he said. “The other two see Romney as the potential winner and want to be on board. Or, both being haters, they might just hate Newt more!”
Of course, Huckabee’s level of distaste for Perry, who has been making the Bain hits almost as noisily on the stump as Gingrich, is also broad: The Texas governor dissed his fellow Southerner to endorse Giuliani in 2008. Huckabee made a string of tough comments about Perry when he first entered the presidential race back in the summer.
An operative who was with one of Romney’s rivals in 2008 and who – like many people – declined to be quoted on the record discussing the past, argued that, in the case of Bain, “It may say something more about the attack than it does about Mitt. There may be a different motive for each one.”
Whatever their motives, the three men are now, to different degrees, strange bedfellows with the man whom they once derided onstage, knocking him into a defensive crouch in debates over everything from his flip-flops to the illegal immigrants who had tended his lawn.
McCain’s endorsement – which arrived the day after Romney won the Iowa caucuses by the narrowest of margins – came as part gratitude, part payback.
“He does appreciate how much Romney did for him last time,” said one source, referring to the support Romney gave McCain as the 2008 GOP nominee.
At the same time, Rick Santorum has made no secret of why he backed Romney back then, when the former Massachusetts governor was the candidate trying to block McCain – it was to thwart the Arizonan from becoming the standard-bearer.
Huckabee, meanwhile, is a long way away from endorsing Romney in the primary, but he made Romney’s life far easier by sitting out Iowa – the state where he had the strongest support in 2008 – rather than backing one of the conservative alternatives.
He also hosted Romney on his Fox News show, and questioned him head-on – but without the veneer of attacking him – about where he stands on abortion, an issue on which Romney has switched positions and that remains a serious question mark for some conservative voters. Huckabee has not denounced Romney nor suggested he isn’t sufficiently conservative, which has also helped the front-runner.
Huckabee, as one GOP operative put it, “wants to be relevant, and is relevant when you’re talking about a presidential primary.”
Giuliani will never endorse Romney while there’s still a primary race, according to multiple sources, although he is widely expected to support the eventual GOP nominee.
“At the end of the day, all these guys think Mitt would be better than Obama,” said one Republican insider who worked for a Romney rival in 2008.
Another said the Bain issue is unifying in a way that almost nothing else would be, simply because of where the party is right now.
“I think what you’re seeing is Republican leaders kind of say, ‘Look, this is a tough primary and do what you got to do, but capitalism is what we are as a party and attacking it” should be off the table.