Politics

04.02.12

Rick Santorum Faces Triple Wipeout in Wisconsin, Maryland, and D.C.

If he loses the Wisconsin primary on Tuesday, the former senator’s campaign may be written off. Why much of the media now see Mitt Romney as the inevitable nominee.

Rick Santorum may be headed for a triple defeat on Tuesday, one that would severely wound his chances of winning the Republican nomination.

And that’s no bull.

Polls can be ephemeral, but an NBC survey showing Mitt Romney leading in Wisconsin is not good news for the former senator—especially because he’s way behind in Maryland (and failed to qualify for the ballot in D.C.).

The poll shows Romney leading 40 percent to 33 percent in Wisconsin, and here’s the key stat: Santorum has lost every state for which there is exit polling when the percentage of evangelical voters is less than 50. And in Wisconsin, says NBC, evangelicals make up 41 percent of the Republican electorate.

Santorum’s failure to expand his base beyond very conservative and religious voters has hurt him badly in such states as Michigan and Ohio, even as he has racked up wins elsewhere. 

And he looks to be toast in Maryland, where a Rasmussen poll has him trailing Romney, 45 percent to 28 percent.

Santorum has no intention of pulling the plug on his campaign, even if he gets wiped out on Tuesday. But it’s possible the media could do it for him, relegating him to Newt-like status.

Of course, the press doesn’t have the power to push someone out of the race. But it does have the power to push someone out of the news.

What’s already starting to happen is that news stories are built around the assumption that Romney will be the GOP nominee. The recent, well-orchestrated endorsements by Jeb Bush, George H.W. Bush, Marco Rubio, and now Paul Ryan have added to the aura of inevitability, just as the Romney camp intended.

When Santorum walloped Romney in the Louisiana primary, it was treated as an inside-the-paper story. If he can’t generate major headlines when he wins primaries, the impression takes root that his campaign is a sideshow. And losing Wisconsin, where Santorum was once thought to have a good shot, would help cement that impression.

Plus, there’s a three-week lull after that until a bunch of states in Romney territory go to the polls, along with Pennsylvania. Needless to say, a loss in his home state would be humiliating for Santorum.

The media treatment of Santorum is not related to his recent carping about his coverage. Santorum appeared to be playing to the cameras when he accused a New York Times reporter of “lying” and “bullshit” for a question he asked at a public event. Jeff Zeleny had merely asked about Santorum’s slam that Romney was “the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama.” Santorum claimed he was only talking about Romney’s vulnerability on the issue of health care.

The press doesn’t have the power to push someone out of the race. But it does have the power to push someone out of the news.

That attack on the front-runner followed a speech in which Santorum said: “You win by giving people the opportunity to see a different vision for our country, not someone who’s just going to be a little different than the person in there. If you’re going to be a little different, we might as well stay with what we have instead of taking a risk with what may be the Etch a Sketch candidate of the future.”

The suggestion that four more years of Obama would be preferable to a Romney victory triggered sharp criticism from some Republicans. The subtext is that if Santorum is almost certain to fall short, it makes little sense for him to be damaging the party’s likely nominee with such harsh rhetoric.

Santorum has since toned things down a notch, which may indicate that he is responding to the admonitions of party elders or simply that he recognized he was going too far.

If you wanted to get conspiratorial about it, you could suggest that Santorum believes the time has come to mend fences with Romney. (Gingrich, for his part, met secretly with Romney before announcing that he was cutting his staff, curtailing his campaign schedule and concentrating on a potentially contested convention.)

In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody, Santorum said “of course” he would consider an offer to become Romney’s running mate. “I’ll do whatever is necessary to help our country,” he said.

Such a ticket is unlikely, given the harshness of the campaign and the two men’s divergence on key issues, but stranger things have happened.

Santorum, who was badly underestimated by the press until he (belatedly) won Iowa, isn’t thinking about the No. 2 job at the moment. He is trying to jump-start his candidacy and, at the very least, block Romney from winning enough delegates to claim the nomination when the primaries end.

That’s why Wisconsin is crucial—and why the outcome will have a major impact on how the pundits and the BS artists portray Santorum’s campaign after Tuesday.