Let me start right of by saying that a scenario in which I would vote for Rick Santorum would have to be as farfetched as to place me in a world where the paranoid ramblings of the right wing echo chamber had a basis in reality. If that wording is puzzling to you, please consider it my bow to the instruction to the wise never to say never.
But I’m not a Republican primary voter, and Santorum, whose candidacy for president was classified in the same category as Al Sharpton’s or Mike Gravel’s as recently as a month ago, is seeking the approval of Republican primary voters, and he’s no longer a lower tier candidate. Whether he returns to that status will be determined in the next two weeks.
Tomorrow is the New Hampshire Primary, and Romney is going to get the most votes and delegates. The real question is what happens farther back in the pack. New Hampshire is not natural territory for Santorum, so he doesn’t really need to finish second to “win”. All he needs to do is overperform. An over performance by Santorum could indicate a coalescence of the support of the “anti-Romney” forces. (This does not include Paul. He gets his own category as he’s the only true libertarian in the field. Nor does it include Huntsman as the only establishment figure opposing Romney, and he’s likely to be gone Wednesday anyway. New Hampshire is his firewall.) That would come at the expense of Gingrich and Perry who seem to have conceded New Hampshire as they spent Monday in South Carolina. It’s unlikely that either would exit the race before it turns south to the Palmetto State, but if Santorum is building support from conservative evangelicals at their expense, the writing is on the wall. Gingrich, in particular, would not be getting those voters back with his personal history.
From Romney’s standpoint, that’s the better “Santorum Surge” scenario. If Santorum over performs at the expense of Romney, then Romney’s in deep yogurt (to use a technical term) even with a “win”.
Romney needs to maintain the sense of inevitability to survive the South. He needs to stay above 35% in New Hampshire to do that. (I haven’t been watching polls closely, but after Iowa, he was at 43% and last night I saw a 39%.) If he falls below 35% and those voters move en masse to Santorum, Mitt’s in trouble and will have to take on Santorum.
Now, that’s an interesting exercise for a Republican. For a Democrat, it’s easy. Santorum is on the extreme right on abortion and homosexuality. That’s where you start and then you walk through a political record that is akin to an orchard of trees laden with low hanging fruit. For a Democrat trying to win independent and moderate voters, Santorum’s a cake walk.
But how do you go after him if you’re a Republican, particularly one that is widely believed to be moderate dressed in conservative’s clothing? That’s a very different prospect, isn’t it?
Romney can’t touch him on abortion of homosexuality. Santorum’s positions on these issues are the consistent with the GOP platform from 2008, and the party has moved to the right since then. For Romney to criticize him as too extreme is to criticize the party and a significant number of primary voters for the same thing; there’s no help there for Romney.
What else is there?
Well, Santorum is a former US Senator. Legislators have a hard time running for president against non-legislators because it’s easy to pick apart a voting record and distort it. “I voted for it before I voted against it.” John Kerry phrased this badly, but what really happened is that he voted to fund the Iraq War by raising taxes on the wealthy. That motion failed. He voted against the version that put the war on the national credit card, but he was characterized as being against the troops as a result. You could also vote to allow a vote to take place (cloture) and then vote no. Or you could vote against your own bill to allow the option of reconsidering it after it loses. These are strategic and tactical votes that legislators of both parties take all the time, and they are ample fodder for anyone wanting to attack and distort a legislative record.
Another knock on Santorum is that he engaged in the practice of earmarking appropriations bills to fund projects in his district. While this plays well, especially in GOP circles, the fact is that he was doing his job to make sure that the taxpayers in his state got their share of tax dollars back in the form of federal funding for projects. So that may get some applause, but it’s not going to be enough to beat Santorum. When it comes down to it, a substantive examination of Santorum’s record will probably reveal a high level of consistency on core issues and some standard horse trading on side issues.
What about inconsistency or hypocrisy? Now, this is an interesting one. There is a part of Santorum’s paste that could potentially be in conflict with his stated policy positions. However, it is a personal family tragedy and should be off limits to any opponent, Democrat or Republican. I’m not going to say what it is, but it’s no secret. It’s something that he’s spoken about on the record. Any attack along that line is likely to do more damage to the attacker than to Santorum, and it should. I think there are political operatives out there who would use an attack on the issue in question if it would work, but they are also smart enough to know that it would alienate voters, driving them to defend Santorum.
Again, I’m no fan of Rick Santorum, and there are plenty of fair lines of attack against his candidacy. The problem is that they tend to fall along the lines of his extremism on core elements of Republican orthodoxy. That’s a great line of attack from the Democrats, but a problematic one from a Republican. The fact is that Romney’s biggest selling point is his electability, but to argue electability against Santorum is to argue electability against the deeply held values of the Republican base. Basically, Romney is going to have to rely on his organization to pull him through and hope that it’s enough of a force multiplier to hold off Santorum in the Bible Belt. It’s not a foregone conclusion.
Santorum, on the other hand needs a top three finish in New Hampshire with an upward trend in the polls. If he can make that happen, he could, against all analysis from a month ago, find himself as the standard bearer of the religious right. That’s a powerful position to hold going into the Bible Belt, particularly if Gingrich and Perry start to fall away.
So that’s my analysis. We’ll see what happens soon enough.