We are nearly through the Alternate Reality Week of the 2012 primary. Rick Santorum won two caucuses and one ballot test which assigned no delegates. This gave him "momentum." He joined two other candidates (not Ron Paul; I'll get to that in a bit) at a conference of conservative activists, with a straw poll that, historically, has only fitfully predicted the Republican nominee.
Like magic, it all mattered. Public Policy Polling's latest national poll (there's no some thing as a national primary, etc etc, rabble rabble) puts Santorum in the lead. It's the classic three-candidate* dilemma:
Part of the reason for Santorum's surge is his own high level of popularity. 64% of voters see him favorably to only 22% with a negative one. But the other, and maybe more important, reason is that Republicans are significantly souring on both Romney and Gingrich. Romney's favorability is barely above water at 44/43, representing a 23 point net decline from our December national poll when he was +24 (55/31). Gingrich has fallen even further. A 44% plurality of GOP voters now hold a negative opinion of him to only 42% with a positive one. That's a 34 point drop from 2 months ago when he was at +32 (60/28).
In a sort of lull, with no debates and minimal advertising, the candidate who's been attacked the least is doing best. So how did he, Gingrich, and Romney, take advantage of CPAC?
Santorum gave a speech that, with some changes, could have been delivered on the night of a primary win. (This was emphasized by the backdrop: His happy family.) It wasn't until after the speech that he told Sam Stein the specifics of his birth control stance: "This is having someone pay for it, pay for something that shouldn't even be in an insurance plan anyway because it is not, really an insurable item. This is something that is affordable, available." In the speech, he placed the contraception issue in a generalized, apocalyptic context:
It's not about contraception. It's about economic liberty; it's about freedom of speech; it's about freedom of religion. It's about government control of your lives and it's got to stop.
This was a comment for a national audience from someone who will not be minimized as the "man on dog" guy.
Romney, who's really just trying to endure the week without more bad spin, has always had a problem completely contradictory to Santorum's. The general electorate doesn't think he's a right-winger; neither does the electorate that wants to nominate a right-winger. With a little distance, the takeaway from Romney's speech was just how many times he said the word "conservative."
With a little distance, the takeway from Gingrich's speech was... boy, I really don't know. The text is here, and if you diagram it against any Gingrich speech of the last year, you hear maybe two new items. Romney and Santorum both embedded subliminal, no-names attacks against their opponents in their speeches. Gingrich barely bothered. He attacked the "Republican establishment," then rattled off some items from his rotating list of ideas. "If you believe that honesty about our enemies, strengthening our defense, and competence in our beliefs is vital to our survival, come join us," he said. "We don’t care who you once were. We don’t care what you once did." There is no advantage, not anymore, to letting Rick Santorum remain the sole high-minded positive candidate.
*and Ron Paul!