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Mitt Romney: The Campaign Within the Conservative Movement to Take Him Down

Mitt Romney’s coming off quite a good week and a half. Last month’s depressing job numbers bolstered his desired narrative about being the man most suited to save the economy, his opponents have largely (and inexplicably) shied away from taking potshots at his Massachusetts health care bill, and he looked far and away the most presidential of all the candidates in Monday’s GOP debate. Yet after talking to conservative activists over the past week, I’m by no means convinced that he is in the clear. For several conservative organizations, antagonism toward Romney runs so deep that they are actually gearing up to wage campaigns against him.

Probably the most prominent group targeting Romney is FreedomWorks, the Dick Armey-led conservative organization. The group has been increasingly vocal about its opposition to the former governor of Massachusetts. “Romney has a record and we don’t really like it that much,” Adam Brandon, FreedomWorks’ communications director, recently told The Huffington Post. Now the group is threatening to unleash part of its $25 million treasure trove in an attempt to sink his candidacy. Brendan Steinhauser, the group’s director of federal and state campaigns, tells me the only way Romney might avoid this fate is to start by apologizing unequivocally for “RomneyCare” and make other outreach efforts to conservatives. Otherwise, the group, which boasts over a million members, more than 750,000 fans on Facebook, and an equally large activist email list, is ready to mobilize against him. “The question of whether Romney is acceptable on policy is a huge question, and I don’t think that he is, because of health care in particular, and because of his supplying a bunch of bad ideas,” says Steinhauser. “And we believe we can get a rock-solid fiscal conservative elected president.”

Working parallel to Steinhauser and FreedomWorks is Alaskan Joe Miller, the Tea Party favorite who won his state’s Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in 2010 before losing to Lisa Murkowski in the general election. Miller has taken it upon himself to launch a new “Stop Romney” campaign that’s hoping to raise and spend as much as $500,000 on television and radio ads attacking Romney as an unscrupulous opportunist—all of which will be funneled into his most critical early primary state. “We’re going to put all our focus on New Hampshire,” says Bryan Shroyer, executive director of Miller’s Western Representation PAC, which has over 250,000 supporters and spent heavily to back conservatives in 2010. “We think that if we can stop Romney from winning the New Hampshire primary, then we can stop him from winning the nomination.” Miller’s group has bought the domain name, which currently directs to a Facebook page by the same name, replete with Romney-bashing and YouTube links to past clips of the ex-governor taking moderate positions. “We will never get behind Mitt Romney,” Miller declared in a statement. “On issues like gun rights, gay rights, abortion, immigration, and health care, Romney has flipped more than John Kerry flopped.”

Finally, social conservatives are rejuvenating their battle against Romney. Last time around, the religious group American Right To Life ran ads in key primary states decrying Romney’s pro-life conversion as a “fairy tale.” This cycle, the group intends to run ads in Iowa and South Carolina in a self-proclaimed effort to “decimate” Romney’s campaign early on. “We plan to repeat our strategy that worked in 2008, which was to blanket those states with TV ads letting the conservative Christian base know that Mitt Romney supports the killing of unborn children,” American Right To Life spokesman Bob Enyart told me. “We have commitments from our supporters to spend enough money to make sure every voter knows his actual record.” Enyart takes credit for weakening Romney in 2008, saying, “Exit polls showed that conservatives voted against him because they believed he was lying about being pro-life. And he’s still the same Mitt Romney.” The group has created a lengthy profile page for Romney, complete with video clips and nearly 100 citations that intricately detail his evolving position on abortion.

But what of the possibility that these attacks could backfire and end up benefiting President Obama? FreedomWorks’ Steinhauser says this isn’t their top concern. “Could that hurt Romney’s chances in the general election [if he’s the Republican nominee]? Maybe,” Steinhauser concedes. “But I don’t think we want to get stuck with another disappointment as a Republican president. If the guy at the top of the ticket goes against the free market, goes against what we believe in, then we’re not really motivated by just getting a Republican in office.”

Sahil Kapur is the Washington Correspondent for Raw Story and a regular contributor for The Guardian.

Follow @tnr on Twitter.