12.19.11

Michael Tomasky: Get Ready for Santorum Time in the GOP Campaign

A poll shows Rick Santorum surging—and now two social conservative groups have endorsed him. Michael Tomasky on the former Pennsylvania senator's belated moment in the sun.

From the “predict something long enough, and it’ll happen eventually” department, I was delighted to see in this new PPP poll not only that Newt Gingrich tanking but also that my man Rick Santorum has made it to the promised land of double digits for the first time, at exactly 10 percent. A modest start, but then again, every big thing starts small; Christianity was illegal for 300 years. So I still submit, as I’ve argued before, that Santorum has the ability to shake up the race.

First of all let’s take a look at the poll. So Ron Paul is now ahead in Iowa, with 23 percent. Mitt Romney is at 20 percent, and Gingrich has slithered all the way down to 14. Paul’s lead isn’t really very surprising, and in fact the movement fits the exact template we’ve seen so far. Gingrich was the flavor of the month after Herman Cain collapsed, but then he was found wanting in this way and that. Several establishment figures unloaded on him, and his dervish-like past caught up with him as he absorbed a heavy dose of attack ads running constantly in Iowa. He has no money to counter attack. And so what happened is just what you’d expect to happen. His personal favorability numbers tumbled from plus 31 to minus 1 in two weeks.

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So in stepped the next non-Mitt. Finding the plausible non-Mitt is what the race has been about for months now. The next logical turn after Newt belonged to Paul, because he had and has a built-in following. But his 23 percent is scarcely overwhelming. The emptors are still heavily caveating. Somewhere deep down in those capacious souls of theirs, Iowa conservatives must know that if they made Paul the nominee, he’d win about 11 states. Further, if Paul does win Iowa, he’s surely going to get his own taste of Gingrich-like treatment from the elements of the establishment—mostly the foreign-policy neocons, and they can bite, as we know—that don’t want him anywhere near the White House. So Paul will get his comeuppance, too.

There is still time for one more non-Mitt to get his shakedown cruise, even before Iowa. Santorum has several points going for him. As I’ve noted previously, he’s kosher with all three wings of the party, neocons, theocons, and pluto-cons. He’s the only candidate who has campaigned feverishly across the state. It’s become conventional wisdom that that doesn’t matter anymore. But how did that become conventional wisdom? In part it became conventional wisdom on December 7, when Dick Morris said on the set of Fox & Friends that Iowa is won “on this couch.” I haven’t put much stock in Dick’s predictive powers since 1999, when he kept insisting in his New York Post columns that Hillary Clinton would never actually run for U.S. Senate in New York, and I challenged him during a ride on the #1 train to put some money on the proposition, and he wouldn’t. It’s possible that Morris is a pious man like Rick Perry and therefore averse to betting, but I doubt it. So it could be that the new CW is wrong, and Iowa can still be won . . . in Iowa.

All the volatility is a function of voters not wanting Romney. They’re literally giving every other candidate a look. It was bound to be Santorum’s turn eventually. And it’s here now.

Santorum has one big down side. He lost his last election by a whopping 18 points. That’s bad. There just isn’t much history of people coming off losing races and then doing well in pursuit of the presidency. In fact there is probably no history of it. On the other hand, he did serve two terms as senator in a blue state, beating an incumbent Democrat (Harris Wofford) to get there in the first place. He might not win Pennsylvania in a general election, but it’s not out of the question, and at the very least he’d sure make the Obama campaign spend time and money there that it would rather put into Ohio. I think that if I were a Republican insider pondering what the map might look like next November 7, I’d rate the matter of his provenance a plus, maybe a big one. He’s sure more likely to contest Pennsylvania than Romney is Massachusetts—or even Michigan, a state from which he’s many years removed.

Bachmann and Perry join Santorum at 10 percent in this poll, so they could be re-rising. We’ve learned by now not to count out any scenario. And Jon Huntsman is doing nicely in New Hampshire. So there is much we don’t know, except we do know this: All these perturbations are a function of the fact that these voters don’t want Romney. They’re literally giving every other candidate a look before moving on to the next one. It was bound to get to Santorum’s turn eventually. So it’s here, in protean stages, or it’s coming.

They may cast him aside too. But I will note this. The others were all eventually tossed in the waste bin because of flaws that were too gratingly obvious, and Santorum has none of those flaws. He isn’t a world-historical asshole (Donald Trump). He isn’t inexperienced or too narrowly focused (Bachmann). He isn’t dumb (Perry). There is no way in heaven or earth that he is a philanderer (Cain). He doesn’t feed off bombast (Gingrich). He’s not a quirky, poorly sartorialized old man with a few bizarre views (Paul). And finally, he’s not Mitt Romney. Not being all those things must add up to being something.