Santorum is the Tebow of '12 race

Rick Santorum has become the Tim Tebow of politics.  

Like the Denver Broncos quarterback, Santorum has been met with derision by critics, only to pull off the seemingly impossible more than once. He has embraced the comparison, imitating the player’s signature pose with supporters in Colorado earlier this month.

While Rick Perry said in a December debate that he had hoped to be the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses, Santorum seems the better fit.

The question is whether Santorum will get to, and then win, his last game. 

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Despite all his last-minute heroics, Tebow’s team still crashed out of the playoffs. Will Santorum likewise ultimately be relegated to the status of a man who thrilled his supporters but never really got within touching distance of victory?

Polls suggest Santorum is surging after victories last week in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri, lifting the miasma of unelectability that has hung around his shoulders. 

A CBS News/New York Times poll released Tuesday showed Santorum performing barely worse than Romney in a head-to-head match-up against President Obama. (The poll indicated Romney would lose by 6 percentage points, whereas Santorum would lose by 8.) A Public Policy Polling survey released the same day showed Santorum faring significantly better favorability ratings than Romney among independent voters.


Yet just as pigskin pundits predicted Tebow would come down to earth, their political brethren seem to think the Santorum surge will end. 

Despite having won four of the nine Republican contests to date, Santorum’s chances are habitually dismissed among the media and Beltway cognoscenti. 

Writing on The New Yorker’s website Tuesday, John Cassidy painted Santorum as “essentially an ultra-right-wing protest candidate.” Others note his supposed lack of electability as a consequence of his trenchant social conservatism. Doubters add that Romney’s financial advantages will bury Santorum sooner or later.

All of that might turn out to be true, but some experts who are far from ideologically simpatico with Santorum argue that he is not to be underestimated.

Bob Shrum, the veteran Democratic strategist, told The Hill that Romney’s camp should be worried about the challenge Santorum poses on several fronts. First, Shrum noted, Santorum’s appeal to economically frustrated voters goes deeper than the candidate’s now-famous penchant for sweater-vests.

“He communicates the sense that he understands the tough things people are going through,” Shrum said. “I don’t think his answers are right, but he doesn’t seem distant or aloof or remote the way Romney does.”

Of Romney’s much-vaunted financial advantages, Shrum added:

“Romney better pray that the negative ads from the super-PAC work, or he’s got a big problem. And they might not work. You can only go to that well so many times.”

The Romney campaign is trying to portray Santorum as a big-government conservative only too happy to talk the conservative talk while procuring pork for his home state of Pennsylvania during his time as a senator. And, late Wednesday, the Romney team put out a news release titled “Rick Santorum: Big Labor’s Favorite Senator.”

Perhaps the attacks will do the job, just as Romney and his network of supporters effectively incinerated Newt Gingrich’s hopes on two separate occasions — in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses and before the Florida primary.

But the assault on Gingrich could have an unintended consequence for the Romney camp. With Gingrich fading badly, conservatives might finally have settled on their candidate — Santorum — after months of tumult.

Richard Viguerie, the direct-mail pioneer and one of the key figures in the formation of the modern conservative movement, endorsed Santorum last month. He promised that he would soon produce a news release detailing many other prominent conservatives coming on board for the Pennsylvanian.

“The vast majority of conservatives have been sitting on the sidelines, and you can literally see that changing in front of your eyes,” Viguerie told The Hill. “Conservative leaders are moving toward him, and that means he is going to be hard to beat.”

Skeptics argue Santorum faces a significant problem in trying to explain away his crushing defeat in Pennsylvania in 2006 at the hands of Democrat Bob Casey Jr. Santorum lost the race by 18 percentage points, the worst result for a Senate Republican incumbent in the state’s history. Such a collapse in a state that has in recent years been a presidential-election battleground — albeit a Democratic-leaning one — is far from auspicious.

Santorum did, of course, win two Senate races in the Keystone State before then. But Terry Madonna, the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Pennsylvania’s Franklin and Marshall College, noted that Santorum was characterized more early in his career by a focus on “fiscal restraint and reining in government spending.” As his profile on social issues rose, Madonna argued, his political vulnerability rose along with it.

“It became a pretty serious problem for him with women voters — college-educated women in particular — and with Republicans in the suburbs, who tend to be more culturally liberal than he is,” Madonna said.

Santorum backers like Viguerie insist that the candidate’s social conservatism could actually be an asset, helping him to win the votes of conservative Catholics in what Viguerie termed a “horseshoe” of crucial states around the Great Lakes — places like Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan.

Madonna isn’t so sure. 

“He didn’t win them against Casey,” he said. “Casey obliterated him with those voters.”

Casey, however, was and is an anti-abortion-rights Democrat with deep roots in the Pennsylvania political landscape — his father was a governor of the state. Culturally, he is a rather different opponent from President Obama.

Shrum insists that Santorum, 53, would struggle to be a truly viable general-election candidate.

“The sight of a 60-year-old [sic] man running around campaigning against birth control actually alienates groups like suburban women that you have to win.”

But Viguerie insists that cries from opponents of “The preacher’s coming, the preacher’s coming!” will not scare off Santorum’s potential backers.

“Conservatives walk with Santorum and Santorum walks with us. He’s one of us,” he said.

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