Politics

03.06.12

Santorum Wins 3 States as He Battles Romney to a Photo Finish in Ohio

Santorum wins three states and is battling Romney to a photo finish in Ohio. Howard Kurtz on the ex-senator’s strong showing and why Romney can’t wrap things up.

Rick Santorum was battling Mitt Romney to another cliffhanger finish in Ohio on Tuesday night after beating him soundly in three other states,  reviving his underdog campaign yet again.

Even if Santorum loses the Buckeye State by a few thousand votes, his strong showing in the industrial heartland has raised fresh doubts about a battered frontrunner who can’t seem to close the deal.

By besting Romney in Tennessee and Oklahoma as well as North Dakota, Santorum showed surprising strength across the country and seemed to be riding a wave of enthusiasm for his blue-collar brand of politics.

Romney’s biggest wins were in states where he had huge advantages: Virginia, where Santorum and Newt Gingrich failed to qualify for the ballot, and Massachusetts, where he was governor. Gingrich stayed alive by winning his home state of Georgia.

Given Romney’s huge advantages in money and organization, the tight race in Ohio is a morale boost for Santorum’s guerrilla outfit.

On the biggest day of the GOP race, Ohio was the critical prize, given its status as the Rust Belt state that every Republican who has captured the White House has had to win.

Given that Romney badly outspent Santorum in Ohio, it was a morale boost for Santorum’s guerrilla outfit to fight the former governor to something close to a draw on a day when voters in 11 states went to the polls.

The outcome cast a shadow on Romney’s ability to win in the South, with Santorum’s Tennessee triumph fueled by evangelical voters. And in a more fundamental sense, the stylistic contrast between the two made Romney seem scripted and Santorum scrappy.

Romney is nothing if not resilient. He always seems to do just well enough to stay ahead of the pack, but not well enough to convince the party that it’s time to close ranks behind him. He scores one week and stumbles the next. He projects competence but does not inspire.

In terms of delegates, which is the Romney camp’s preferred frame, their man had a good night. Never mind that he won Virginia, where Santorum and Gingrich failed to make the ballot, and Massachusetts, where he was governor. Romney added a small-state win in Vermont, but under proportional-representation rules he will capture a haul of delegates even in the states he lost. Indeed, Santorum did not file full delegate slates in more than half the districts in Ohio.

The back-to-back-to-back televised speeches were instructive. While Gingrich’s speech was mostly about him and the media (plus gas prices), Santorum delivered perhaps his most effective oration to date. “I want so badly to return the power to you in this country,” he said. Santorum gained passion as he spoke of an overarching federal government, the evils of Obamacare, and the need for liberty in America. And he landed a strong blow against Romney by capitalizing on new evidence that the former Massachusetts governor had indeed supported a health-care mandate more recently than he has acknowledged.

Romney, by contrast, gave a smooth but workmanlike speech that barely contained a personal touch. He struck a Reaganesque chord by speaking of voters he had met on the trail, some of them with “heartbreaking” stories as they struggle in the Obama economy. But then he pivoted to his standard indictment of the president, botching the key soundbite about how Obama is “out of ideas” and “we’re going to run him out of the White House.”

Ohio was tailor-made for the former head of Bain Capital. More than half the GOP voters surveyed in exit polls deemed the economy the most important issue, and nearly a third cited the federal deficit. But on the question of who’s better able to understand the problems of average Americans, Santorum edged Romney, 33 to 22 percent.

It’s easy to forget the degree to which Santorum was viewed as the longest of long shots for most of this campaign as others—Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Gingrich—took turns as the leading anti-Romney alternative. The press mostly ignored the Pennsylvania Republican until shortly before he managed to edge Romney in Iowa, according to a later recount.

But Santorum faded again as his ragtag team seemed unable to capitalize on his early success—until he stunned the political world with that hat trick of winning Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri. Had Santorum upended Romney in Michigan, he would have utterly transformed the race.

Santorum probably erred by playing up culture-war issues, his campaign suddenly consumed by talk of birth control, religion, JFK, and prenatal testing. When he returned at least partially to focusing on manufacturing jobs, he seemed to regain the traction he had lost.

Despite his periodic setbacks, Romney remains the favorite to win a months-long slog to the nomination. But with polls showing the vitriolic campaign hurting the GOP, the clear winner may be Barack Obama, who held a news conference Tuesday to try to steal a little of the political thunder.

Romney appeared to right his campaign last week with a slender victory in his native state of Michigan, widely described by the pundits as “winning ugly.” Whatever his success on the delegate side, Super Tuesday was not an especially pretty day for Romney.