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Bain Attacks On Romney Recall Notorious 'Willie Horton' Ads

The satisfying victory Mitt Romney harvested in New Hampshire's primary this week was marred by the late eruption of a blemish. It could be a passing cloud in the otherwise blue Romney sky, or it could be the sign of storms ahead.

Does anyone remember Willie Horton? Does anyone remember the tragic trajectory of another Massachusetts governor, Michael Dukakis, in 1988?

More of that in a moment.

In the final days before New Hampshire, Newt Gingrich ripped into the front-runner because some companies taken over by Romney's investment banking firm — Bain Capital — went bankrupt and left workers high and dry. After drawing blood with this thrust in the weekend debates, Gingrich swore to pursue it going forward.

All but exhausted as a contender for the nomination, Gingrich, the former House speaker, still shows real potential as a human torpedo. Just as important, a Gingrich backer in the Las Vegas casino business has ponied up $5 million to spread this last-gasp anti-Romney salvo on TV.

Gingrich will not be a solo shark. Rick Perry, staking what's left of his campaign on South Carolina, has called Romney a "vulture capitalist." Who knows? Maybe other Romney rivals and critics will join Perry and Gingrich in a feeding frenzy in the days ahead. If so, we can expect much of the national news media to take part, as well.

And then there's Romney's own inadvertent contribution. Incredibly, one day before the primary, in an unrelated context, Romney said: "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me." It didn't take long for rivals to pounce on that quote, or to drop all the words after "I like being able to fire people."

Will it matter? Polls showed Romney was already ahead in South Carolina even before his New Hampshire victory. South Carolina has voted for the eventual nominee in every Republican primary since 1980, and the state is proud of it. Looking for a winner? After Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney looks more like a winner than anyone else.

As far as New Hampshire was concerned, it's hard to say the Bain brouhaha did much damage. Romney wound up winning with almost exactly the percentage he had enjoyed in the polls last week. On the surface, no harm done.

But the real danger of the Bain story will not be manifest among Republicans this winter and spring. The real danger is that the story bobs back up in the summer and fall.

Which brings us back to the tale of Willie Horton. If you don't remember it, you can bet Mike Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic nominee for president, does.

In the Democratic primaries of 1988, a young Tennessee senator named Al Gore raised the issue of a prison furlough program in Massachusetts. The program, which had the backing of that state's governor, Dukakis, allowed Horton out temporarily. While on the loose, Horton committed a rape and a murder.

The issue didn't help Gore, who was going nowhere in the primaries that year. But Republican campaign master Lee Atwater knew a wedge issue when he saw one. "By the time I'm done," Atwater said with a wink, "people will think Willie Horton is his running mate."

To be sure, Dukakis' general election campaign had plenty of other problems. But none was so lurid and enduring as the ads attacking him for the furlough program (and featuring a frightful prison picture of Horton). Those ads — which also drew accusations of racism for their frightening portrayal of a black criminal — helped make George H.W. Bush the 41st president of the United States (and his son the 43rd).

It's a distant mirror, of course, but the circumstances of a weak primary candidate raising an emotional issue in 1988 resemble those by which Gingrich and others now attempt to derail the Romney express.

The Horton issue worked because it resonated with Dukakis' image as a bleeding heart liberal. The Bain assault works if voters come to see Romney as a heartless capitalist, a Wall Street marauder wrapped in patriotic patois.

Democrats can only dream of the fallout being as disastrous.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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