WASHINGTON (AP) — It was all going so pleasantly.
A month ago, the Republicans who would be president gathered for a debate in New Hampshire and had nothing but nice things to say about one another.
“Any one of the people on this stage would be a better president than Barack Obama,” said former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
“A great, great field of candidates,” said former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
“I respect my fellow Republican candidates,” former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman said a week later as he joined the race.
Well, summer’s heating up and — inevitably — so is the sniping among GOP candidates.
With Romney leading polls everywhere and Rep. Michele Bachmann suddenly a threat in leadoff caucus state Iowa, Republicans who’d been working to introduce themselves to the nation now are feeling the need to take their GOP competitors down a notch.
The tone is nowhere near that of the mosh pit that will be the campaign come next winter.
But it’s getting sharper by the day, even if the jabs sometimes have a passive-aggressive feel to them.
Take this weekend stroke-and-poke by former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty at Bachmann, a fellow Minnesotan.
“I like Congresswoman Bachmann,” Pawlenty said on NBC. “I’ve campaigned for her. I respect her. But her record of accomplishment in Congress is nonexistent. It’s nonexistent.”
He went on: “And so we’re not looking for folks who, you know, just have speech capabilities. We’re looking for people who can lead a large enterprise in a public setting and drive it to conclusion. I’ve done that. She hasn’t.”
That wasn’t exactly Minnesota nice.
Bachmann, who polls show is leading Pawlenty in his seemingly must-win state of Iowa, countered that “instead of negativity, I want to focus on my accomplishments” and gave some details about her actions in Congress.
And then there’s Huntsman, who began his campaign with a pledge to stay on the high road, saying, “I don’t think you need to run down someone’s reputation in order to run for the office of president.” He stressed the importance of civility and avoided criticizing fellow Republicans at first.
But this week, he played coy with a jab at Romney’s track record as Massachusetts governor vs. his own record in Utah.
“When you look at absolute increases in job creation, Utah led the way in the United States in terms of job creation,” Huntsman said during an appearance Monday in South Carolina. “Compare it and contrast it with certain other states like, we’ll say, Massachusetts, that I’ll just pull out randomly. Not first; but 47th.”
When Romney’s campaign countered that he had created nearly 50,000 jobs in Massachusetts, Huntsman’s aides came back with even more pointed criticism, saying only Ohio, Michigan and Louisiana had a worse track record.
“You know your job creation record is bad when you brag about going from last to 47th, leapfrogging a state ravaged by Hurricane Katrina,” said Huntsman spokesman Tim Miller. “In order to turn the economy around, the GOP needs a candidate with a track record of job creation, not one with a failed record similar to President Obama’s.”
Santorum, meanwhile, took a jab recently at Huntsman, who’s made much of his love of riding motorcycles. A Santorum Web ad shows a motorcyclist soaring through the air and then crashing in the dirt, and flashes these words on the screen: “Hasn’t signed the anti-abortion pledge. Just like Mitt Romney.”
Sarah Palin, the GOP vice presidential candidate in 2008, hasn’t said if she’ll join the race but has managed to keep herself in the mix as well.
She took some swipes at Romney during a May bus tour, criticizing his health care plan in Massachusetts and questioning his appeal to tea party members.
Pawlenty, who’s faced questions about whether he’s tough enough for the campaign, sometimes has struggled with the art of the snipe.
At one point, he derided Romney’s health care plan as “Obamneycare” but then declined to make the same criticism when he stood on the same stage with Romney at the New Hampshire debate.
Then, after he caught criticism for pulling his punch, Pawlenty tweeted: “On seizing debate opportunity re: healthcare: Me 0, Mitt 1. On doing healthcare reform the right way as governor: Me 1, Mitt 0.”
Todd Harris, a Republican consultant who has worked on a number of GOP campaigns, said it’s all playing out according to the script that candidates of both parties follow every four years.
“In the beginning, everyone goes out of their way to talk about how they are all such close friends,” he said. “About midway through the campaign, the relationships begin to fray. And by the time the voting begins, many of them can’t stand each other.”
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