Santorum Scores While Romney Wobbles

Who woulda thunk it just six months ago? Rick Santorum the biggest challenger to frontrunner Mitt Romney? After Tuesday’s wins in Alabama and Mississippi, he certainly is.

Last year the former Pennsylvania senator looked like the dictionary definition of “also-ran.” But as one hot conservative  candidate after another flamed out, Santorum kept working and campaigning,  wearing down the opposition and  pushing a manufacturing revival and social conservatism.

That message has played well among white-working class evangelical Christians who can’t relate to Romney’s country-club Republicanism and are suspicious of his Mormon faith.

Former Senator Rick Santoum. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Santorum also has sold himself skillfully as a true conservative, whereas half the Republican voters in Alabama and Mississippi said in exit polls that Romney wasn’t conservative enough.

The former Massachusetts governor was the big loser, finishing third in both Southern primaries, which he earlier had called an “away game.” Romney hasn’t topped 30% of the vote in any contested Southern primary.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who vowed to push on, was the night’s other big loser. He finished second to Santorum in both states, but he needed a win in at least one to create a rationale for his candidacy.

Now, he has none except for his personal ambition to stay in the limelight (and maybe get a plum job in a Romney Administration), because his presence on the ballot splits the conservative vote and allows Romney to win some states and collect delegates in others.

Gingrich has won only his home state of Georgia and South Carolina, where the former Speaker caught lightning in a bottle. The pressure on him to leave the field now will be intense.

Meanwhile, it’s extraordinary how Santorum’s poorly funded shoestring operation has won victory after victory over the Romney Death Star.

Romney himself, with his embarrassing “hi,y’alls” and supposed love of grits, is proving to be one of the worst retail campaigners we’ve ever seen at the presidential level, worse even than Al Gore in 2000 and Bob Dole in 1996. He’s a blatant phony who will say anything to get the nomination, and voters know it.

Santorum’s reactionary social policies on issues like birth control have forced Romney way to the right of his own record and the vast majority of the electorate. He may need to do that to appease the radicalized Republican base, but it will make it harder for him to “pivot” and win over independents, particularly women and Hispanics, if he secures the nomination.

The national polls have tightened and Romney actually leads President Obama in one of them. I wonder if that can last as this primary campaign drags on and both candidates say more outrageous things that will be used against them in the general. If Republicans lose this election in a year that should have been theirs to win, then it will be no one’s fault but their own.

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