Politics

02.09.12

Can Rick Santorum Ride His ‘Big Mo’ to Knock Newt Gingrich Out?

Santorum’s Midwestern caucus hat trick has energized his campaign and brought in new supporters and money. Now his campaign will try to ride the momentum to remove Newt from the picture and make it a Romney-Santorum race.

Rick Santorum has an Internet problem, and no, it’s not that problem. After his big wins Tuesday night, Santorum’s campaign website has been overwhelmed by traffic, and according to top campaign strategist John Brabender, it's had trouble processing the sheer number of donations. He said, “So many people were going to contribute that we quickly blew up the server,” and that traffic was much higher than it had been even after the former Pennsylvania senator’s narrow win in Iowa. In fact, for the first time, the campaign’s biggest problem was “keeping everyone happy” who wanted Santorum to appear on their television program. Santorum had made it. He had won more states than any other candidate and was finally getting headlines. It still doesn’t make him the frontrunner or even level with Mitt Romney, but it does change the dynamics of the campaign.

The goal of Santorum’s campaign had long been to knock Newt Gingrich out of the picture and make the race a two-man battle between Santorum and Romney. Between his wins on Tuesday and Gingrich’s implosion since his win in South Carolina, Santorum has made significant progress toward achieving that goal. Gingrich has been hurt by a combination of poor debate performances and the emergence of many longtime critics from the woodwork, the most vociferous of whom, former congressman Bob Dornan, described him to The Daily Beast as a “lying, betraying ... creep of a human being … worst person I served with in either party.” While Dornan’s language may be rather extreme, it does give a good sense of the strong emotions Gingrich inspired among his Republican colleagues while serving in Congress.

Tuesday’s results, however, are by no means fatal to Gingrich. The former House speaker did not even appear on the ballot in the Missouri “beauty contest,” and did not seriously contest Minnesota or Colorado. Further, many of the upcoming Super Tuesday primaries will be in the South, which has been Gingrich’s strongest region, including his home state of Georgia. He also may benefit once the GOP debates resume. There haven’t been any debates in nearly two weeks, and, with the glaring exception of the two immediately prior to Florida, Gingrich has invariably performed well in his debate appearances.

Also, while Santorum did sweep all three states holding contests on Tuesday, those wins were not that impressive. The only state Romney seriously contested was Colorado, and even there he ran a campaign so complacent that a Denver TV news reporter wrote an open letter to complain about the lack of media access. As one supporter, Rob Whitwer, a former state representative and coauthor of the book The Blueprint, pointed out, Romney “took the state for granted” and “didn’t do the basic blocking and tackling of campaigns.” It is unlikely that the former Massachusetts governor will let himself be caught napping in future contests.

Until Feb. 28, when both Michigan and Arizona have primaries, the only state holding a presidential-preference poll is Maine, which will announce the results of its caucuses on Saturday. Even though Santorum now has what Maine’s most famous Republican, George H.W. Bush, famously called “the Big Mo,” he will be unable to take full advantage of it. Not only will he have to contend with Ron Paul’s strong organization and Romney’s favorite-son status as a fellow New Englander in the Pine Tree State, but he also has to contend with the reality that many Mainers have already voted. Many towns and counties in Maine held their caucuses last weekend, including the state’s third-largest city, Bangor; its capital, Augusta; and Piscataquis County, which is the only county in New England that John McCain carried in 2008. Thus, the Santorum campaign doesn’t have high hopes in Maine.

In Michigan, where Romney is a native son and where his father was a very popular governor, Mitt is favored—as he is in Arizona, which has a large Mormon population. Nevertheless, Romney is vulnerable in Michigan. The Wolverine State is the kind of working-class, Rust Belt state that Santorum has performed very strongly in so far, and it will see a strong effort from his campaign. While Dan Schnur, the former communications director for McCain’s 2000 campaign, thinks Romney “ought to win Michigan and Arizona without much problem,” those states are not without their pitfalls. To Schnur, they have become the “new New Hampshire.” Romney will get “no credit for winning either, but he can’t afford to lose.”

Those states, though, are only the prelude to Super Tuesday, on March 6, when Ohio, among other states, will hold its primary.

Between wins on Tuesday and Gingrich’s implosion since South Carolina, Santorum has made significant progress toward his goal.

Ohio is the “new Florida for Romney,” according to Schnur. “If Romney wins it, he reestablishes himself as an almost prohibitive frontrunner; if he loses there, it becomes a free-for-all that goes all the way to California.” It is a state where Santorum will mount a strong effort as well, and where Gingrich spent caucus night Tuesday campaigning. Because of the state’s size and the sheer number of major media markets, Romney will be able to take advantage of his superior financial resources. But after its wins on Tuesday, Santorum’s campaign is starting to scoff at this. To Brabender, Romney has been using his fundraising lead as an argument as to why voters should choose him, which the top Santorum strategist finds “arrogant” and counterproductive. “If Mitt Romney wants to print bumper stickers that say ‘Mitt Romney for president because I have more money than anyone else,’ I’ll help them pay for it,” Brabender said.

Santorum still is not the leader in delegates or the cumulative popular vote so far, but he now has real momentum and a clear, plausible path to victory. It remains to be seen whether he can successfully leverage these assets. But for a candidate who, only a few months ago, was going from Pizza Ranch to Pizza Ranch in the passenger seat of a pickup truck, it is a tremendous leap forward.