The 'I Hate Romney' Club

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(l. to r.): David McNew / Getty; Alex Wong / Getty; Joe Skipper / Reuters

John McCain, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani

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To be sure, the candidates' staffs do seem to have bonded in their dislike of Romney. "It was very common for e-mails to be flying around between the Thompson, McCain and Giuliani campaigns," says the former Thompson staffer, "Saying, 'No matter what happens with us, we all need to make sure it's not him.'" The staffer says that campaigns would share opposition research on Romney and offer each other tips on how best to undermine him: "Like, 'Hey, I saw you hit Mitt on immigration — have you thought about going after him on this issue?" In some cases, the attitude even extends to the top of the campaigns. The night of the Iowa caucuses, after getting a congratulatory call from McCain, Huckabee told the candidate, according to aides: "Now it's your turn to kick his butt."

Before and after debates, rival campaign staffers note, Romney tends not to mingle with the other candidates — most of whom know each other professionally — preferring instead to keep close to his family and staff. And those same staffers delight in trading stories about Romney's odd behavior. The day before the Republican primary, Huckabee mocked Romney for ordering lunch at a Kentucky Fried Chicken, then peeling off the fried coating and eating it with a knife and fork. Presented with a golf club, Huckabee said he wouldn't be very good at the game: "I'd be like Mitt Romney eating fried chicken."

But such jibes mask more substantive complaints that many of the candidates have about Romney. "What Romney has done," says a Huckabee adviser, "he's attacked people for positions he once held. That annoys people. And he uses his own money to do it, which rubs it in." He's gone after McCain on campaign finance reform (which he once supported), Huckabee on tax increases (Huckabee countered that Romney's raised "fees" amounted to the same thing), and nearly all the candidates on immigration.

The Republicans, of course, have no monopoly on bad feelings between candidates. In recent weeks, the bitter feuding between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has made many voters wary and disappointed. Yet in recent years, Republicans have made a mantra out of Reagan's "11th Commandment": "Thou shall not criticize other Republicans." Unaligned pollster Whit Ayers notes, however, that the Clinton-Obama clashes have "tapped into racial fault lines," something missing from the anti-Mitt sentiment. "It doesn't tap into anything larger," says Ayers. "It's just personal."

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