I have to ask readers to trust me on this since I don’t remember exact dates or names, but I do remember reading about a political prank by Michigan Republicans that has some current relevance.

This took place in the late 1960s or during the ’70s and came about because of the state’s open primary law. Open primary laws allow voters to choose their party on the day they vote, so Republicans can identify themselves as Democrats on voting day, or Democrats can show up as Republicans.

One Michigan district has a heavy Dutch Reform church population that would as soon vote for Lucifer as for a Democrat. No Democrat has ever been elected to Congress from this district. Consequently, the Democrats never had a serious candidate to run. Any name would do, just to fill in the space on the ballot, and the Democrat turn-out was always meager.

In the year I can no longer remember, a self-identified Nazi put his name in for the Democratic nomination, and a bunch of Republicans saw an opportunity for a little fun. So they showed up, registered as Democrats for the primary, and the Michigan Democratic Party found itself saddled with a Nazi nominee it had to repudiate.

I don’t remember whether this was an organized Republican plot, but it didn’t take many pranksters to do the deed given the obscurity of the non-Nazi candidates and the light Democratic turn-out.

I was reminded of this because of a Feb. 28 CNN report with Joe DiSano, a Democratic strategist, who contacted nearly 50,000 registered Democrats in Michigan with emails and robocalls urging them to registers as Republicans on primary day and vote for Rick Santorum.

The Michigan Democratic Party claims he has acted on his own, but did not actually condemn him for his effort. Mitt Romney’s campaign denounced the scheme as “politics at its worst.”

DiSano’s plan was far from politics at its worst, nor did it qualify as a mere prank. It’s simply a minor part of the Democrats’ re-election strategy. The president’s devoted fans, along with his press and professorial support groups, will continue to praise his administration’s stupendous achievements, but the general public looks upon the real-life, real-time record and despairs for the Republic. The Democratic Party strategists know they cannot overcome the voters’ disaffection with self-praise.

Barack Obama’s 2008 magnetism has largely dissipated, and he has no magnet to draw people to his line on the ballot. His hope for victory relies heavily on scaring voters away from the Republican candidate.

Democratic National Committee chairmammal, Deborah Wasserman Schultz, has denounced Romney as a dangerous right-winger, but that’s about as plausible as putting Casper Milquetoast on a horse and dressing him up as Attila the Hun.

How can that work when the primary results so far show that a large number of Republican primary voters doubt that Romney is even a real Republican? He clearly has many vulnerabilities as the GOP candidate, but extremism is the least of them.

The Democrats have a better chance of convincing the voters that he’s an extraterrestrial lizard in human form than of convincing them that he’s an extremist.

DiSano knew that Santorum is better fitted for the “dangerous radical” role. Even if he didn’t win Michigan, a close call would damage Romney and help future efforts to, at least, depict him as an opportunist forced to truckle to the “right-wing extremists” in the Republican Party.

Some economists think we may have a double-dip recession this summer. If that happens the “Save Us from Extremism!” strategy becomes central to the hope for a Democratic victory.

DiSano’s little project failed in its objective, but remains an example of what we can expect. Negative campaigns are sometimes risky but often work.

When a candidate’s record is weak, his best strategy is to attack his opponent. Romney is clearly going to get the nomination. The Democrats will attack his character, using some of the same material employed by Santorum and Newt Gingrich. Their attacks on the Republican Party at large will concentrate on allegations of extremism, with heavy emphasis on the tea party demons. They will attempt to tar Romney with the same brush, and it’s likely he will “move to the middle” to defuse that strategy.

Romney’s negative campaign will concentrate on the administration’s record. If the economy dips between now and November, Obama’s job will be done for him. The negative statistics will speak for themselves.

Negative campaigning is where you find the truest common ground among partisans.

John Frary of Farmington is a retired professor and a former Republican candidate for Congress. Email to [email protected]

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