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Santorum: Missed Opportunities, One Last Chance

His mistakes in Michigan and Ohio were likely his downfall.

by
Patrick Reddy

Bio

March 18, 2012 - 12:00 am
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Rick Santorum’s March wins in Alabama and Mississippi will likely get him the one-on-one contest with Mitt Romney that he so desires. But unless Santorum can stage a late rally in the upcoming states of Illinois, Texas, and California, he may look back on the events of late February and early March with a bit of famed poetry: “For all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: It might have been.”

Santorum had a decent day on Super Tuesday by winning three of ten contests, including his first victory in a Southern state (Tennessee). He continues to show impressive strength in the rural Midwest, winning in Kansas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota, and also carrying almost every rural county in Ohio. But the Buckeye State appears to be the one that got away from Santorum. It was his best chance to derail frontrunner Mitt Romney, and he missed it.

While Rick Santorum’s comeback from political oblivion after his landslide loss in the 2006 Senate race is impressive by any standard, he could have performed even better this year. He had two excellent chances to take control of the Republican race in the last four weeks, but lost both — Michigan and Ohio — by achingly close margins.

After his upset wins in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri on February 7, Santorum surged to a 36% to 26% lead in the Gallup national poll of Republican voters. It looked like a conservative was finally consolidating the Republican base against the more moderate Mitt Romney, and would be favored in all contests outside the Northeast and West Coast. (The Rocky Mountain states would be split between those with heavy Mormon populations like Utah and Idaho, and those without many Mormons like Colorado and New Mexico.) Based on Republican delegate counts, a scenario could easily be sketched where Santorum put together a majority based on the South, the Farm Belt, and the Southwest, just as George W. Bush did when beating back a tough challenge from John McCain in the 2000 primaries.

Santorum’s three-point loss in Michigan and excruciating one-point defeat in Ohio ended that scenario. The close loss in Michigan could be attributed to Romney’s personal ties in a state where his father was governor. But Ohio was a true opportunity. Ohio has more rural conservatives than Michigan, and no Republican has ever won the presidency without carrying Ohio. Polls in mid-February showed Santorum leads ranging from seven to 18 points.

Santorum lost his edge in Ohio with unforced errors over contraception and college education, and with a strange attack on John F. Kennedy’s 1960 plea for religious tolerance — while in Macomb County, Michigan, of all places. As Michael Barone has pointed out, Macomb is heavily Catholic and was JFK’s best suburban county outside of New England in 1960. Criticizing Kennedy (the nation’s first Catholic president) there would be like attacking Ronald Reagan while in Orange County; simply not a good idea. For a few weeks, the bad old Rick Santorum — preachy and combative — who Pennsylvania tossed out in a landslide returned. In an interview with CNN, Santorum admitted that he had gotten off-message:

I can get pretty wrapped up about, you know, how important this country is to not just providing a great future for our children, but also for the world. And sometimes I get a little, you know, say the wrong word. … And I said, you know, I made a mistake.

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