Santorum let his moment come, then go

Rick Santorum put a lot of chips on Michigan, and he lost. Now the question is whether his chance to prove he is a viable alternative to Mitt Romney has slipped away for good.

Santorum’s team contends that the close Michigan result — in the end, he lost by just 3 percentage points in Romney’s home state — amounts to a moral victory. In a fundraising email to supporters Wednesday, Santorum asserted that he “gave Mitt Romney the fight of his life.” 

ADVERTISEMENT
But the argument Romney made in his victory speech might carry the day. “We didn’t win by a lot, but we won by enough — and that’s all that counts,” he told supporters in Novi, Mich., Tuesday night.

Santorum’s loss has raised new questions about his tactics in Michigan in particular, and his vulnerabilities as a candidate more generally.

His team’s decision to make robocalls to registered Democrats asking them to turn out for him on primary day was as divisive as it was ineffective. The tactic left an unpleasant taste in the mouths of many conservatives.

Describing the move as “ill-considered,” Florida Republican strategist Rick Wilson added that many conservatives were “turned off by the whole thing.”


The Romney campaign has continued to try to make hay from the controversy. Wednesday afternoon, his aides organized a conference call in which high-profile surrogates called on Santorum to “stop teaming up with Democrats.”

Wilson and others also point to the number of controversies revolving around social issues in which Santorum became entangled. Some of these mini-furors amounted to little more than renewed attention on old remarks — one example being his 2008 reference to “Satan” targeting the United States. 

But others, including the assertion made just before the primary that John F. Kennedy’s famous Houston speech insisting upon the separation of church and state made him want to “throw up,” were seen as self-inflicted wounds.

“What he’s done by getting involved in these social issues is to narrow his base,” said Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs at Pennsylvania’s Franklin and Marshall College.

“He has already won the votes of the people to whom those sorts of arguments are appealing. And a lot of other people are put off by them. I know why he’s doing it — because he believes it — but politically, it’s needless.”

To be sure, Santorum’s campaign was not snuffed out by the Michigan result. Romney will face challenges in several of the 10 states that vote on Super Tuesday on March 6, and Santorum holds a significant lead in Ohio in particular. 

But in two crucial Southern states — Georgia and Tennessee — the former Pennsylvania senator will face stiff competition for conservative votes from Georgia native Newt Gingrich.

Even if Santorum could win both Ohio and Tennessee, Romney is strongly favored in several other states, including Virginia, where he and Ron Paul are the only major candidates on the ballot. That all but ensures that Romney’s delegate lead will continue to grow.

It is still possible for Santorum to win the nomination. But it became a lot less plausible on Tuesday night. 

Santorum spent “an awful lot of his political capital” in Michigan, Wilson said. “Ten days ago, [the Santorum campaign] were saying it was going to be a knockout blow. And here’s the thing: It wasn’t.”