Politics

01.04.12

Is Rick Santorum for Real After Strong Iowa Caucuses Finish?

Rick Santorum stunned the political world in Iowa but could still flame out. Howard Kurtz on whether the ex-senator’s culture-war conservatism and lack of money could prove his undoing.

As he was pulling within eight votes of winning the Iowa caucuses, Rick Santorum made a moving speech about being the grandson of a Pennsylvania coal miner who worked until he was 72, a man with “enormous hands” that “dug freedom for me.”

Unfortunately, much of America had gone to bed by the time the former senator seized his moment in the television spotlight. And it was Mitt Romney, with his confident demeanor and razor-thin win, who took a victory lap hours later on the network morning shows.

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Republican presidential hopeful and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum walks onstage before addressing a crowd at the Stoney Creek Inn on Jan. 3 in Johnston, Iowa. (Rod Lamkey Jr., The Washington Times / Landov)

Having been completely underestimated by the political and media establishment all year, Santorum now faces skepticism from that same establishment that he can transform his virtual tie in Tuesday’s caucuses into a credible run at the Republican presidential nomination. And with good reason: he has a huge mountain to climb in a very short time.

“Santorum is a social conservative with a powerful jobs message—we saw that in the speech—and that’s going to have appeal,” says Mike Murphy, the veteran GOP strategist who has advised Romney in the past. “He’s got a good blue-collar message and biography. Romney has the advantage, but they would be foolish to underestimate Santorum.”

John Feehery, a former Republican official on Capitol Hill, is not optimistic: “The problem for Santorum is he’s got no organization and no money. He put all his eggs in the Iowa basket and now he’s got no eggs. I like Rick, but I don’t think he can beat Obama, and that’s a huge problem.”

The coming terrain is far less favorable for Santorum than in Iowa, where he could work the coffee-shop circuit and where nearly six in 10 voters were evangelical Christians. New Hampshire, where Romney has a 30-point lead, is open to independents, making South Carolina, with its very conservative electorate, a must-win state for Santorum on Jan. 21. Florida, which votes 10 days later, is big, diverse, and filled with expensive media markets.

“We’ve got a little ways to go before we decide Santorum is the conservative alternative,” says Ed Rollins, who served a brief stint as Michele Bachmann’s campaign manager. “He’s got to win somewhere other than Iowa.” At the same time, says Rollins, “Romney still has not convinced conservatives he’s one of them.”

“We’ve got a little ways to go before we decide Santorum is the conservative alternative.”

The contrast between Santorum and Bachmann, who dropped out of the race Wednesday, is instructive, since both were competing for the same kinds of Iowa conservatives. “She never got a message,” says Rollins, and did little to raise money. “Her message was, ‘I’m against Obama and Obamacare, I’ve got five kids, 23 foster kids, and a titanium spine,’ and never evolved beyond that. His story’s a more powerful story.”

Few would accuse Santorum of being a charismatic speaker, but he exudes a certain working-class authenticity. As a House member and senator for 18 years, he knows the issues. But because he spent nearly all of 2011 polling in the single digits, most Americans don’t know how staunchly conservative he is.

Santorum believes, for example, that states should have the right to ban birth control and sodomy, as he confirmed to ABC’s Jake Tapper. He is against abortion even in cases of rape and incest. But he has also drawn flak from the right for voting for federal budgets that include funding for Planned Parenthood and for George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law—though he pushed an amendment to promote the teaching of intelligent design in public schools.

These and other parts of Santorum’s record have drawn little attention because the media never took him seriously until the closing days of the contest, and television interviews often focused on why he was doing so badly. That is about to change.

Santorum won’t have the anti-Romney vote to himself, of course. Ron Paul will get his percentage of loyalists. Jon Huntsman is making his stand in New Hampshire. Newt Gingrich, who seems on a one-man mission to take down Romney, isn’t out of it yet (and has the backing of Manchester’s Union Leader). Rick Perry, who returned to Texas to reassess the race after his fifth-place drubbing in Iowa, looms as a question mark.

“If Perry gets out, Santorum has a decent shot at winning South Carolina,” Murphy says. Romney has the backing of the governor, Nikki Haley, but expectations will be far higher for him.

At the heart of the Santorum candidacy lies a basic split in the Republican Party, one that helps explain why Romney, with all his experience and financial advantages, can’t seem to get above 25 percent. Feehery describes Santorum’s situation this way: “It’s a conservative party, he’s the most conservative candidate, and he’s smart. Unlike Michele Bachmann, he actually knows stuff. He’ll put the emphasis on the social conservative message, which most conservatives don’t want to talk about right now.

“For the solons out there, Rick Santorum is a disaster. For the hoi polloi, he’s very compelling.”

The establishment, in other words, wants the 2012 campaign to be a referendum on President Obama’s stewardship of the economy, rather than getting sidetracked into culture-war spats over abortion and evolution. At the same time, Santorum can use such issues to mine social-conservative votes the way his grandfather mined coal. But that could lead him down the same road that doomed Pat Buchanan after he did well in New Hampshire in 1992 and won the state in 1996, but imploded with an overly aggressive peasants-with-pitchforks crusade.

“The message from now on has to be an economic message,” says Rollins. “You’ve got to offer some solutions.” Santorum, he says, “is a smart guy. He knows the game well. He’s got a great narrative, but he’s got to edit it down.”

If Iowa is any indication, Santorum’s limited resources point to a key vulnerability beyond not having enough staff to organize volunteers, respond to the press, and turn out the vote. The super PAC staffed by Romney loyalists slashed Gingrich’s vote total with a tsunami of negative advertising, which could work just as well against Santorum in such states as South Carolina and Florida.

And there is an X factor, in Feehery’s view: Santorum’s religion. Being a Catholic helps in some Midwestern states, but less so in the heavily Protestant communities of South Carolina. “Bible Belt folks have to make a decision who they hate more, a Catholic or a Mormon,” he says, referring to Romney.

All this should be digested with many grains of salt, given the lousy track record of prognosticators who never anticipated the rise of Herman Cain, the Gingrich comeback, or the Santorum surge. But news organizations may cut Santorum one important break—casting a solid second-place showing in New Hampshire as the moral equivalent of victory on Romney’s home turf.

The reason: they have a vested interest in prolonging this race, and a Santorum collapse could allow Romney an early coronation.