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Where Does Santorum Need to Win?

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by
Patrick Reddy

Bio

February 18, 2012 - 12:00 am
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“Rick Santorum is the sixth different candidate to be ahead in the national polling. … That is a level of volatility that is simply unprecedented in the modern era in a Republican race.” – CNN analyst Ron Brownstein.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum’s upset victories in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri on February 7 shook the notion that Mitt Romney is the “inevitable” Republican nominee. The wins saved his long-shot candidacy and gave Santorum a chance to surpass Newt Gingrich as the “conservative challenger” to Romney. While Santorum still faces the heavy obstacles of Romney’s huge financial and organizational advantages, that he is even still in the game represents an improbable comeback: Santorum started out at 1% in a 2011 Gallup poll.

While he has proven appeal in the heartland, Santorum’s ultimate ability to compete for the nomination depends on expanding his base into the South. He must beat Gingrich there and in the suburbs of the largest metro areas on both coasts.

Santorum’s wins produced surges in the national polls and with his own fundraising. In the days immediately following February 7, Santorum claims to have collected over $3 million — astonishing, considering he raised less than $1 million during the entire summer of 2011. As for the polls, CBS News, Pew, and CNN all give Santorum a slight lead, while Gallup still has Romney ahead by 2 points. (All national surveys showed at least a net 20-point gain for Santorum in February alone.)

Who is Rick Santorum? His grandfather was an immigrant coal miner from Italy, and his father was a manager in the Pittsburgh office of the Veterans’ Administration. Santorum parlayed vigorous campaigning and a fierce social conservatism into several long-shot victories in heavily Democratic western Pennsylvania, including two terms in the U.S. Senate, until his humiliating defeat in the bad GOP year of 2006. After virtually disappearing since leaving the Senate, he mounted a stunning comeback with his presidential campaign.

Santorum’s strengths include his convictions, dedication (he was the only candidate to visit every county in Iowa), an interest in blue-collar issues, and a fervent following among social conservatives. His weaknesses are a temper that sometimes erupts, a lack of tolerance that sometimes scares suburban voters, and a well-deserved reputation as a culture warrior with his numerous controversial statements about minorities, women, and gays. The last time Santorum faced voters, he lost his Senate seat in Pennsylvania by 17 points, the worst defeat for an incumbent senator since George McGovern in 1980. This year, while doing well in low-turnout caucuses, Santorum has yet to win a contested primary.

When Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin declined to run, Santorum spotted an opening for a socially conservative candidate. And when Rick Perry — the early favorite of that base — stumbled, Santorum marched into the breach, telling audiences that “America is a moral enterprise at its core.” After Santorum’s upset victory in Iowa, a Texas conclave of religious conservatives endorsed him.

The key question: can the religious vote deliver for Santorum in the South? Santorum lost the first two Southern primaries badly — South Carolina and Florida — and isn’t even on the ballot in Virginia.

His base of social conservatives should guarantee him a bloc of delegates of at least 25%. But to jump all the way up to 50% plus one, Santorum will have to expand his appeal to the suburban middle class of the great metro areas. It would obviously help if Newt Gingrich were not splitting the roughly 60% of Republicans who identify as conservatives. A full Santorum challenge to Romney may well require either a Gingrich withdrawal or collapse, thus allowing Santorum to consolidate the conservatives and get a one-on-one showdown with Romney.

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