Will Santorum Be the Conservative Survivor?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 9 2012 7:36 PM

The Last, Best Hope for Conservatives

Gingrich says that’s him. Then why is Santorum riding high?

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Newt Gingrich has been making the argument that he's the true conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, yet Santorum has been more successful of late

Marc Piscotty/Getty Images.

At CPAC in 2011, Newt Gingrich took the stage to the stirring sound of Survivor's 1980’s rock anthem "Eye of the Tiger." He walked deliberately through the crowd. Here was Caesar returning from the wars. Tomorrow Gingrich will speak again at the same gathering, but the conservative who most deserves the dramatic, fist-pumping greeting is his presidential rival Rick Santorum: the lonely warrior who has triumphed without playing a soundtrack of self-regard, without the ready millions of Gingrich's gambling-magnate patron, and despite more derision from the elite media than Gingrich has faced. 

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.

Has Rick Santorum eclipsed Newt Gingrich as the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney? Santorum didn't just pull off a hat trick in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri, he trounced Newt Gingrich, besting him by more than 20 points in each state. Those victories appear to have been the start of a conservative rallying toward a single candidate. If that's so, Gingrich should take the advice he was just a week ago offering Santorum: Get out of the race now to ensure that there is a single conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. 

Rick Santorum's success Tuesday was an embarrassment to Mitt Romney, but the good news for Romney is that it set up a dynamic that benefits him. Gingrich and Santorum will continue to split the anti-Romney vote, giving the front-runner an even better chance to win future contests. But if there were ever a sole alternative to Romney, that person would pose a more serious threat. 

Here's how one GOP strategist put it: "The longer conservatives stay split, the harder it is going to be for us to [beat Romney]. And I think that we risk not being able to beat Obama unless we get a conservative." That strategist was Newt Gingrich. He followed up by saying, "I have to win the nomination."

Gingrich's argument for prevailing is that he has people power over Mitt Romney's money power. It's a dubious claim since his super PAC has received $10 million from a single Las Vegas couple, but let's forget that for the moment and pretend it's true. The Gingrich strategy is that the grassroots will rise up and propel his candidacy because they know Romney is not a true conservative and they like Gingrich's conservative message. That is a powerful pitch. It makes Romney's money seem like a liability—it may make him look strong but it’s not authentic strength. The message also boosts Gingrich's allure: He will ride aloft the passions of the conservative masses. 

It's a good strategy—and it's happening! The problem for Gingrich is that it's happening to Rick Santorum. Usually the former speaker would blame the subway-riding elite media for this phenomenon, but if there's a candidate who has been counted out even more than Gingrich it's Santorum. (Of course, this could be a part of the media's diabolical plot to keep the race interesting, but that would have required infiltrating the electorates of the three states that voted for Santorum, which we’re just not organized to do.)

The former Pennsylvania senator won without a big war chest and he did it with the "little engine that could" spunk that has characterized his candidacy. Gingrich, in the same period, has only soured his brand. His post-Las Vegas press conference was full of bitterness. "The way he has revived himself in the past," says GOP pollster Whit Ayers, "is as a big picture visionary talking about uniting the party around his vision as opposed to the angry Newt whining about attacks on him."

The good news for Mitt Romney is that Newt Gingrich is unlikely to follow his own advice. He will take the stage at CPAC on Friday looking to reignite the spark that once propelled his campaign. However it goes, Newt will stay in the race and keep splitting the anti-Romney vote. If he really wants to do Romney a favor, he'll start attacking Santorum. And even if Santorum steals the spotlight at CPAC, why would Gingrich get out? He Gingrich is at his best when people are predicting his doom. Indeed, perhaps he is sinking himself so far beneath the shale in order to make his rebirth all the more dramatic. But if conservatives have already moved on and picked Rick Santorum as their true conservative champion, then this year the Survivor song remembered may be the band's less well-known anthem: "The Search Is Over."