Following his sweep of contests in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, Rick Santorum may
have momentum on his side. The key is sustaining that momentum going forward into Super Tuesday and beyond. There are some things Santorum has in his favor that could sustain it, things that also show why he is a force to be reckoned with.
1. Santorum is not Romney
It may seem tough to start off with a negative but Santorum’s success perhaps says more about Romney than Tuesday night’s victor himself. Indisputably, Romney is a hard candidate for grassroots Republicans to love and his conservative bona fides will always be open to question.
Though many Republicans respect Romney or can tolerate him or can calculate in their heads that he should be their nominee, they can’t fall in love with him. Ultimately, they may not need to. But this makes the road to the nomination a rocky one for Romney, involving a series of candidates in the ABM (Anyone But Mitt) slot, the latest of whom is Santorum.
2. Santorum is a movement conservative
Santorum is a genuine conservative, socially, fiscally and in terms of foreign policy. He speaks the language in a way that Romney doesn’t.
As Rush Limbaugh put it recently: “He [Romney] just doesn’t have conservative reflexes. It’s like trying to learn golf late in life: The reflexes just aren’t there. You’ve got to have a foundation, a basic understanding to have the reflexes, and they just aren’t there. And I don’t know if he can learn ’em.”
Santorum has the foundation and the reflexes and he talks the language that conservative activists understand and can relate to.
3. Santorum has remained positive
Going negative on Newt Gingrich in Florida was good in the short term for Romney and he probably had no other realistic option. But it carried medium-term consequences (last night) and perhaps long-term ones as well.
Gingrich’s angry, peevish and intemperate responses to Romney did him a lot of damage. Romney got under his skin and it was not attractive to see. Floating above all this was Rick Santorum, campaigning largely positively and based on his ideas rather than on what a bum the other guys were.
4. Santorum is a happy warrior
Romney is much improved from 2008 but he remains a somewhat robotic candidate who finds it difficult to achieve a gut connection with voters. Campaigning sometimes seems almost painful to him
A big part of this may well be Romney’s background. As Naomi Zeveloff argues in this illuminating piece, he’s the “ultimate Mormon male” – with all the very good that entails but also the downsides: “The very qualities that make a good Mormon man, however, make for a poor campaigner.”
Santorum, by contrast, is at home on the campaign trail – as well he should be, having virtually taken up residence in Iowa for the caucuses – and that makes him a lot easier to relate to. In the Senate, Santorum had a reputation as a prickly character but he has become noticeably more relaxed and affable as the 2012 race has progressed.
5. Santorum is a Tea Partier
There have been plenty of Tea Party obituaries written but the Tea Party, whie amorphous and diffuse, is not dead. It was the motive force behind the Republican wave in 2010 and it is a major factor this time around as well. Doubtless with an eye on the general election, Romney has done no serious Tea Party outreach.
The Tea Party is populist and to a large degree blue collar. Although best known as a social conservative, Santorum’s blue collar roots and populist economic message makes him a natural Tea Party figure – whereas Romney is in many ways the epitome of the establishment candidate.
Of course, there are complicating factors in this – particularly Santorum’s record on earmarks – but for the time being Santorum is a more natural fit with the Tea Party than Gingrich, never mind Romney.