Is Santorum Becoming the GOP’s Worst Nightmare?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 19 2012 2:55 PM

Why Rick Santorum and David Axelrod Agree About Mitt Romney

Fending off Romney’s attacks in Illinois, Santorum is reaching for a new weapon: the Obama campaign’s playbook.

Rick Santorum
As the primary wears on, Rick Santorum is borrowing his anti-Romney talking points from the Obama playbook

Whitney Curtis/Getty Images

On the eve of the Illinois primary, Rick Santorum looked deep into the heart of Mitt Romney and came up empty. "He doesn't have a core," Santorum said on CBS's This Morning. “He’s been on both sides of almost every single issue in the past 10 years.”

Does that sound familiar? If you wonder where you've heard that before, it came from President Obama's top strategist David Axelrod, who first said Romney lacked a “core” last October. It was then repeated by David Plouffe, a senior adviser to Obama who ran his 2008 campaign. The fact that Santorum is now cribbing from the Democratic playbook is precisely why some Republicans fear a long slog of a primary will damage their chances to beat Barack Obama. Not only is Santorum potentially weakening the likely nominee, but by parroting the administration's critique he lends weight to their claims. If Romney is their opponent, the Obama team will be ready to hit “replay” on the Santorum clip this fall.

And that isn't the only Democratic talking point the Santorum campaign is lifting. His chief strategist, John Brabender, is now making an issue out of Romney's private-sector career. "While Mitt Romney was at Bain Capital, almost one out of every four companies they were involved in either went bankrupt or out of business," Brabender said on MSNBC this morning.

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A couple of months ago, during the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, it was Newt Gingrich who first gave life to this line of argument. Back then, Santorum wasn’t a fan of that tactic. “It’s this hostile rhetoric, which unfortunately—I don’t want to stand here and be a defender of Mitt Romney, but unfortunately even some in our party now, even some running for president, will engage in with respect to capitalism,” Santorum said to nearly 200 people in a town hall meeting in West Columbia, S.C. “It is bad enough for Barack Obama to blame folks in business for causing problems in this country. It’s one other thing for Republicans to join him.”

The Romney campaign has been facing charges over his constancy since he became a presidential candidate. They've argued that on the pillars of his life—his faith and his family—he has been more solid than any other candidate, which is true. They also respond to Santorum’s claim of congenital flip-flopping with an embarrassing flip-flop of Santorum’s own making. Today, the former Pennsylvania senator says Romney has no core, but last election Santorum made the exact opposite case. "Nobody puts words in my mouth," Santorum said in 2008. "If you want a conservative as the nominee of this party, you must vote for Mitt Romney."

Santorum is reaching into the Democratic playbook because he is taking a pounding on the airwaves in Illinois, where Romney is vastly outspending him. The Romney campaign is running a television ad that calls Santorum an "economic lightweight" and points out that he has no executive experience.  A new radio reminds Republicans thinking about the general election that Santorum took a drubbing when he lost his Senate race in 2006. The latest American Research Group poll from Illinois shows Santorum with just 30 percent to Romney's 44 percent. If Romney wins by that margin and picks up a large share of the state's 69 delegates, it will kick off a good stretch for him. Of the nine remaining contests through the end of April, he is likely to win six—and maybe as many as eight—of them. Santorum's can count on winning Pennsylvania but little else over these weeks. If there's a relationship between the odds Santorum faces and the sharpness of his attacks, April is going to be a cruel month for Republicans. 

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

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