Santorum’s big victories: What will front-runner Mitt Romney do now?

Santorum’s Surprise Victories Leave Romney Scrambling

Santorum’s Surprise Victories Leave Romney Scrambling

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 8 2012 11:03 AM

The Vest Man Won

What Rick Santorum’s surprise victories mean for Mitt Romney.

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The question for Romney now is whether he opens up a two-front war against his opponents. This morning a press release from the woozy staff in Boston attacks Gingrich. In recent days, the Romney campaign has picked up its attacks on Santorum as a promoter of pork-barrel projects when he was in Washington. Attacks like these have taken their toll on Romney. His negative rating with independents has gone up. As the race plods on—and Nate Silver thinks it will plod on quite a lot—it hurts Romney because he gets attacked by his opponents and he's got to engage in behavior that voters might not like. In late January an ABC/Washington Post poll showed that Romney's unfavorable rating among independents had jumped 17 points to 51.

Santorum argues that he is the conservative who can draw bright contrasts with Obama. That ideological message resonates in caucuses, but it hasn't in bigger contests where voters have thought more about electability. The constant refrain from voters I talked to in South Carolina and Florida who like Santorum but have gone with other candidates is that they just don't think he can take on Obama.

In the contest of the anti-Romney candidates, Santorum doesn't have the punch Newt has. On the other hand he also doesn't have the baggage. He has a winning family story. Also: There is perhaps no greater attribute in conservative politics than sticking to your guns when everyone else counts you out. It's a political message. It's a biblical message. Santorum is the walking embodiment of that characteristic. Even his sweater-vest seems on message. 


Santorum worked hard in his victory speech to show that he could mount an effective attack against Obama, who he portrayed as a snob who thinks he knows better than regular people. That's a good political attack and it also plays into the social issues where Santorum is stronger, particularly the recent fight over mandating that Catholic hospitals provide contraception to employees. That fight is about religion, but it's also about the Obama administration working its way into every part of your life.

The next big battleground will be the Conservative Political Action Convention in Washington this Friday. Santorum, Gingrich, and Romney will all be there. It was at that gathering of die-hard conservatives in 1975 when Ronald Reagan made his case that the party needed to nominate a candidate of bold colors and not "pale pastels." That's the argument Santorum and Gingrich are making about Romney.

Romney has his own historical echo that can comfort him. It's not unheard of for front-runners to lose like this—Reagan, Bush, Bush, and John McCain all lost contests. McCain lost 16 contests. Despite the cliché that Republicans fall in line, it's actually a messy party. The GOP has had lots of establishment/conservative fights—Eisenhower vs. Taft, Rockefeller vs. Goldwater, Nixon vs. Rockefeller, Dole vs. Buchanan.

Romney today is on the opposite end of the phenomenon that helped him four years ago. Conservatives upset with the establishment choice need somewhere to go. In 2008, they picked Romney in Colorado, where he won the state going away as the conservative alternative to John McCain. That's also why he won in Minnesota in 2008. Only about half as many people turned out to vote for Romney in Colorado as they did in 2008, and he came in third in Minnesota, where he also received far fewer votes than last time. Now he's John McCain, and Rick Santorum is playing Mitt Romney. Unfortunately for Romney, who has so often been criticized for inhabiting so many different variations, he can't be himself and the Mitt Romney of 2008.