Romney’s Efforts To Allow Rick Santorum To Engineer His Own Loss in Michigan

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 20 2012 3:39 PM

Mitt Romney’s Near-Death Candidacy

What the candidate must do to beat Santorum in Michigan.

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Mitt Romney faces another big test in Michigan in a week, where Santorum's lead in polls may be shrinking

Eric Thayer/Getty Images.

In a lot of ways the coming Michigan primary feels like the Florida primary again for Mitt Romney. He's facing another near-death experience. He wakes every morning to news accounts of the five things he needs to do to right in his campaign before it dies. Then, after choking that down, he rolls over to the other stories—speculating about which white-knight candidate might arrive to rescue the GOP from the botch Mitt Romney has made of things.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

This flashback feeling perhaps explains why Romney is following the Florida playbook he used against Gingrich to defeat Santorum, who’s become his primary competition this time around. The general strategy consists of three parts: attack Santorum as an insider; encourage him to hang himself on his own; and while Santorum is tied down with that two-front war, present Romney as the candidate talking about jobs and defeating Barack Obama.

Monday, with seven days of campaigning to go before the Michigan primary, the Romney campaign was working on the two fronts it can control: bashing Santorum for his record in Washington, and holding a conference call to remind us that Romney is a conservative leader who is right for Michigan. Romney can't win just by tearing down his opponent. He has to bring out the Romney fans in Michigan. He must do that not only to win, but also to have something to say about what it all meant after the win. He has to show that he has people who are for him.

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Santorum, for his part, does not have Newt Gingrich's baggage, which makes him a trickier target, but he also doesn't have Gingrich’s ballast. Voters could forgive Gingrich his foibles because they thought he was a behemoth who could clobber Obama in the fall. They just don't think that of Rick Santorum. When Gingrich was threatening Romney a few months ago, voters started to see him as more electable than Romney. In the latest CBS national poll, Santorum is ahead on the horse-race question, but trailing by almost 40 points to Romney when voters are asked who can beat Barack Obama. In a Gallup poll out today, Santorum leads Romney 50-44 among Republicans, but by nearly 2-to-1 (58 to 32 percent) they say Romney has a better chance than Santorum of winning in November.

Romney advisers believe Santorum's support is very soft outside of those who identify themselves as "strongly conservative" in exit polls. That means Romney’s team believes they have a lot of room to define him as a creature of the culture of big government spending in Washington. Santorum won't fall because he's seen as negatively as Gingrich perhaps, but if Romney can raise enough doubts about him, that might be enough to pull it out. 

Romney may benefit even more from Santorum's self-inflicted troubles. One way Santorum is like Gingrich is that he is having trouble controlling his moment in the sun. With movement conservatives behind him, his chief political goal is to grow his vote with conservatives focused on issues that go beyond the social conservative basket—creating jobs, lowering taxes, and maintaining a strong national defense. That means Santorum must not swing at every pitch, and instead stay focused on those mainstream issues.

Santorum knows this and is acting on it, but he also can’t seem to stop himself from swinging. When social issues come up, he takes them on. And when there are no pitches, he's out in the backyard tossing the ball in the air and taking a swing by himself. This weekend Santorum jumped into sticky situations on the issues of education, prenatal screening, and Obama's theology.

Talking about these issues explains why Santorum has such ardent fans. As he said during his interview on Face the Nation, he's happy to talk about these issues that don't get discussed much on the campaign trail. But doing so is also a time suck, requiring lots of clarification that eats up time for any talk about his plan to encourage manufacturing. This means every time the people hear about him, he’s being the “social issues candidate.”

You could argue that Santorum got a bum rap on each of the incendiary issues he was wrestling with this weekend. His comments were misinterpreted and distorted by the opposition. When he said Obama had a different theology, he wasn't challenging whether Obama is a Christian (despite the dive for the fainting couch from Obama's advisers). A more generous reading based on the context, his standard stump speech, and Republican political talking points suggests that what he was saying was that Obama's secular big-government ideology completely rules his decision making. For the president, that ideology is as thoroughly felt as a religious belief.

So that's the fair reading of what Santorum meant. But he was vague, which meant it was reasonable to ask him what he was going on about. Also, politics isn't the best place to look for fair readings. Santorum knows that, and should know how to avoid making his own sand traps to jump in. Why? Because he understands exactly how to use an unfair reading, and does so regularly with things President Obama says. (American exceptionalism being a good example.) 

Michigan will determine whether Mitt Romney’s superior money advantage and bigger organization is worth anything. It's to these two qualities that insiders cite when explaining why Romney can weather these challenges from Santorum and Gingrich. But Romney’s losses show the obvious limitations to this firewall. Money and organization don’t help much in contests where movement conservatives dominate. They don’t help in Michigan, which is not as hospitable as Florida was but has a more diverse electorate than the caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota. Right now Romney advisers still seem confident they will pull it out in Michigan. And if past is prologue, a win will revive his fortunes, diminish the talk of a brokered convention, and set Romney up for his next near-death experience on Super Tuesday.

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