John ‘Rombo’

by Robert Costa

“There were a few times when we were filming it when I wondered whether I was out of my mind,” says John Brabender, Rick Santorum’s strategist. “I had Mitt Romney roaming around with a gun.” He chuckles as he says this, amused, as are many politicos by the campaign’s latest television ad. The puckish spot casts a cackling Romney look-alike as a Santorum stalker. “It was fun to do,” he says. Even funnier was “how Fox News blindsided Romney during an interview, asking him to sit there and check it out, then comment.”

Watching a tense and smiling Romney fail to offer a sharp rebuttal was revealing, Brabender says. They had struck a nerve. Romney may have the cash advantage but from Brabender’s perspective, Team Santorum is slowly erasing Romney’s aura of inevitability, his supposed claim to the GOP throne. A montage of a fictional Romney shooting mud, playfully entitled “Rombo,” is an important part of that process. “The better ads are stories,” Brabender tells me. “You need a beginning, middle, and an end. People don’t pay attention to the ads where everything, negative or positive, is thrown in the mix.”

Brabender, a fast-talking media consultant who has worked with Santorum for over two decades, says the GOP presidential race has now become a storytelling contest, not merely a battle of contrasting ideas. As his candidate rises, and Romney scrambles to sustain his front-runner status, Brabender wants to remind conservatives that Santorum may be the underfunded insurgent but he’s not the one airing “stale 30-second ads.” He wants voters to think about Romney’s negative tactics, to mull whether they’re appropriate.

“If they see a Romney ad attacking Rick Santorum, I want our [“Rombo”] ad to be in the back of their mind,” Brabender says. “I want them to ask themselves whether they think that kind of thing is presidential, whether it brings the party together. Instead of inspiring us, he’s beating people up?”

Brabender conceived the ad a week ago after reading a Romney press release following Santorum’s victories in Minnesota, Colorado, and Missouri. “They put this statement out there, basically saying that these races don’t really matter. That’s insulting to the people in those states. But it was a line they had that really got to me. They declared that they’d still be the nominee because they’re better organized and have more resources. Gee, I thought, that’s another way of saying I’ll win because I have more money than the other guy.”

“There is a reason that Romney’s unfavorable ratings are starting to skyrocket,” he says. “Tone and temperament matter. People see our ad as a response to his negative attacks. Santorum will not become a punching bag.”