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Romney takes aim at GOP leadership in new TV ad

A view of Mitt Romney's new TV ad, which is already airing in New Hampshire and will soon be shown in Iowa. A view of Mitt Romney's new TV ad, which is already airing in New Hampshire and will soon be shown in Iowa.

Mitt Romney gives the Republican Party some tough love in his latest ad, chastising the GOP for spending too much, turning a blind eye to illegal immigration, and allowing its ethical standards to plummet to the point where it has become "a punch line on Jay Leno."

Romney has tried to position himself as an outsider who would change Washington as president. But in the ad, which began airing yesterday in New Hampshire and will appear in Iowa later this week, he overtly disapproves of his party's leadership in Washington in the strongest terms he has used so far - and urges the party to clean up its act.

"If we're going to change Washington, Republicans have to put our own house in order," Romney says in the ad, speaking directly to the camera, ticking off a list of transgressions. "When Republicans act like Democrats, America loses. It's time for Republicans to start acting like Republicans. It's time for a change, and change begins with us."

The ad is the most vivid illustration yet of the balance Romney is trying to strike between condemning his party's mistakes while embracing its principles. Conservatives across the country, political specialists said yesterday, are hungry for a leader who voices their concern that the party has deserted its core values - and shows he can put it back on track.

"I think it's a sentiment that most Republicans feel - that Republicans in Washington have lost their way," said David Carney, a national Republican strategist from New Hampshire. "No question about that - I think that's the definite pulse of the party."

But in the ad, Romney also stops short of directly criticizing President Bush, who remains popular among the party's core despite dismal job approval ratings overall. He also does not mention the administration's strategy in Iraq, which Romney himself supports.

Instead, he sticks to topics - fiscal discipline, secure borders, and personal morality - that resonate well with the Republican base, which was demoralized after the party lost the Senate and the House in the 2006 elections.

Hans Noel, an assistant professor of government at Georgetown University, said Romney's attack was relatively mild compared with, say, Howard Dean's scathing attacks against the Democratic establishment in 2004 before he lost in the primaries.

"I think this is a lot more deft, but still says 'I'm from the Republican wing of the Republican Party,' " he said.

Noel, who is co-writing a book on presidential nominations, said Romney's ad aims to speak to the Republican Party faithful, who have not yet settled on a consensus candidate because each of the major contenders is seen as flawed by some. Rudy Giuliani has a record of favoring gun control and supports both abortion rights and gay rights; John McCain is distrusted by the religious right and supported an unpopular immigration reform bill; Fred Thompson has yet to prove himself; and Romney has changed his position on abortion and other issues.

"The person who is able to establish themselves as the real conservative in the race is going to get the support of a lot of people right now who are sitting on their hands," Noel said.

The 30-second ad refrains from citing any specific legislation or people who Romney believes have betrayed Republican values - details that could make it seem like a negative attack ad. Kevin Madden, a spokesman for the Romney campaign, said the ad addresses "a broader Washington mindset" that has frustrated Americans.

But most Republicans will quickly grasp the subtext.

The "big spending" Romney laments refers to the growth of pork-barrel spending - and of overall federal spending - in the last couple of years, Madden said. Conservatives have criticized President Bush for not vetoing what they consider bloated budgets.

The border security problems mentioned in the ad refer to the growth in the population of illegal immigrants, lax border security, and the welcoming of illegal immigrants by some cities, Madden said. Romney opposed the failed immigration reform bill - supported by Bush and McCain but vehemently opposed by conservatives - that would have allowed illegal immigrants to stay in the country through a guest worker program, and to eventually become citizens after paying fines and back taxes and learning English, among other requirements.

As for who Romney thought had diminished the party's ethical standards, Madden would not name names, but any number of Republicans, as well as a few Democrats, have been implicated in major sex or money scandals in the last couple of years.

Last year, Republican US Representative Mark Foley of Florida resigned over sexually explicit messages he sent to congressional pages. Earlier this year, Louisiana Senator David Vitter apologized for his connection to a Washington prostitution ring. Last month, Idaho Senator Larry E. Craig announced plans to resign after the disclosure of his guilty plea in connection with a Minneapolis airport sex sting.

Romney, however, may be vulnerable to criticism that he is not pristine on the issues he raises in the ad.

As a new governor trying to dig Massachusetts out of a budget crisis, he relied not only on spending cuts but also on hundreds of millions of dollars in increased fees, fines, and the closing of what he called corporate tax loopholes. He has hardened his tone significantly on immigration over the last couple of years and was embarrassed by the revelation last year that his landscaping contractor hired illegal immigrants who mowed his lawn. And Romney's campaign has not been invulnerable to the scandals that have plagued the party - Craig was one of his Senate liaisons and his campaign co-chairman in Idaho. (Romney immediately jettisoned Craig from his campaign and denounced his behavior.)

J. David Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University in South Carolina, said he thought the ad's ethics message worked particularly well for Romney, whom he described as "pretty squeaky-clean."

"He's distancing himself from the others on what is his strongest track, which is his personal integrity and values," he said. "I think that's a good thing for him."

While the ad's theme of cleaning up Washington might appeal to independents and Democrats who might consider voting for a reform-minded Republican, political analysts said the spot is focused on swaying Republican primary voters.

"This is really not a message to swing voters," Noel said. "It's a message to the party faithful who are looking for a party-faithful candidate. And he's trying to say that's him."

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.

Video YOUTUBE: Watch the new ad

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