The reason the disease is so contagious is that, unfortunately, it has proven effective. Now Romney has embraced this mud-slinging malady, a campaign ploy that Rove, President Bush's senior campaign adviser, has turned into an art form (albeit dark) during his 35 years as a political consultant.
While Obama was in Park City last week offering up ideas for solving the country's problems to several hundred Utahns at a roadside rally, Romney was engaged in a debate with other GOP contenders. Romney turned his sights on Obama's recent assertion that he was willing to speak with anti-American dictators, and his suggestion that he would take strong military action, even in western Pakistan, to root out al-Qaida terrorists. Romney, who decided those two ideas were in conflict, morphed into Utah's nasty partisan-without-peer, Rep. Chris Cannon.
"He's gone from Jane Fonda to Dr. Strangelove in one week," Romney said of Obama.
Romney's comparison is free of logic, of course, but it seemed to endear him a bit to his Republican audience. After all, the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth helped defeat Democrat John Kerry in 2004, as did the GOP's "flip-flop" mantra that exploited any Kerry change of mind.
But in 2006, voters clearly had tired of the insults, name-calling and fear-mongering. They no longer were buying wholesale the Chicken Little claims about terrorists climbing through our drain pipes and murdering our children if the Democrats took control of Congress.
Acidic right-wing pundits like Bill "You're a Kook" O'Reilly, Sean "Ooh, a Liberal" Hannity, Rush "Watch Me Shake All Over" Limbaugh and Ann "He's So Gay" Coulter seem to be wearing thin, which is why it was a little strange to see Romney fall into that pattern.
Perhaps stagnating in fourth place among Republican candidates has left him frustrated. Or maybe he felt the need to tickle the more small-minded of his party after going toe-to-toe with a waitress in New Hampshire over healthcare and, by most accounts, losing.
Or, perhaps, a less-than-stellar character trait in Romney, reflected in a shamelessly Rovian streak of political opportunism, has largely gone undetected until now. For if Romney is the eventual nominee, the Republicans surely will want voters to forget all those "flip-flop" slogans since Romney was in favor of abortion and gay rights before he was against them before he was in favor of them before he was against them.
And here is another trace of a possibly disingenuous mind: Former Salt Lake Tribune publisher John W. "Jack" Gallivan shared a letter with me that he received from Romney extolling his own virtues and asking for campaign contributions.
In the letter, Romney took full credit for the success of the 2002 Winter Olympics, claiming that he "erased a $379 million operating deficit, organized 23,000 volunteers, and galvanized community spirit after the demoralizing scandals, which had sapped the city's morale."
Gallivan was a pioneer of Salt Lake City's Olympics efforts, traveling to Rome with other business leaders bearing the state's first bid in 1966. He watched Utah's Olympics aspirations grow over the years and his son, Mickey, volunteered to do communications work for the bid that ultimately landed the Winter Games for Utah.
Mickey Gallivan says the television contracts, which formed the revenue base, had already been negotiated before Romney took over. The volunteers would have been there regardless (remember the floods of '83?) and morale in the city was never low.
Gallivan, by the way, did not give Romney's campaign a dime.