Santorum blew it

Sure, Mitt Romney can take comfort in his victories Tuesday night: Cheating political death is better than the alternative. But there are ample, shiny silver linings for his challenger, Rick Santorum, in the primary results — enough to keep the dull ache of worry alive in Republicans for weeks, if not months, to come. The Santorum surge might have ended, but his campaign continues. It will further diminish Romney, highlighting his weaknesses, costing him money and momentum and calling his heretofore first-rate organization and financial advantages into question.

Republicans are no longer questioning whether Santorum can knock Romney out of contention and win the GOP nomination. After his upset wins in non-binding contests in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, Santorum has destroyed his opportunity to be his party’s nominee. Instead of doubling down on his successful message of how to restore the manufacturing industry, and how unconstitutional President Obama’s healthcare reform law is, he veered wildly off course, to rail against the dangers of contraception, free prenatal testing, college education and the separation between church and state. As if extremist positions far outside the mainstream of either party in 2012 weren’t sufficient, Santorum took aim at President Kennedy, saying his words on the separation of religion and government made him want to throw up.

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Then Santorum, who had stuck to a policy-driven message throughout the campaign, urging an end to petty attacks on the debate stage and even refusing to join other candidates in indulgent and heretical attacks on free market capitalism, sold his political soul. Using Romney’s opposition to the auto bailout (no different from his own opposition) in a robocall urging Michigan Democrats to vote against Romney was bad enough, but pretending he was appealing to conservative Democrats for their support of his agenda was beyond the pale. Democrats were happy to join, composing 10 percent of the Michigan primary electorate Tuesday.

Instead of making his case for why Romney has “disqualified” himself to face off against Obama because of his past support for TARP, cap-and-trade proposals and an individual mandate to purchase health insurance, Santorum has instead disqualified himself.

So Romney is celebrating his lead of 83 delegates, and the fact that Michigan voters who valued electability most in a candidate, and who placed the economy at the top of their concerns, voted for him. He even beat Santorum with auto bailout supporters and Catholics. Not surprisingly, he won women, though after what Santorum has said recently, a 5-point margin seems small. 

Yet, after being outspent 5-1, Santorum still kept the race within 3 points in Romney’s “backyard.” He won voters aged 18-44, those without college degrees, those earning less than $100,000 per year, those from union households, those considered “very conservative,” evangelical voters and those who strongly support the Tea Party. Romney knows those very voters, who still resist him, will be voting against him again Tuesday in such states as Ohio, where Santorum is currently 15 points ahead. Romney is hoping Santorum doubles his Michigan burn rate, where he turned a 17-point lead into a 3-point loss by losing more than a percentage point of support per day. 

In his sixth year of running for president, Romney is now fine-tuning his message and strategy to sew up the nomination for good. He will sell his new, second economic plan. He will stop talking about stealing kisses with Anne as a teenager, how many NASCAR team owners he hangs out with, how the trees are all the right height, how he loves cars and how many pricey cars he owns. Because he knows he isn’t close to being in the driver’s seat yet. 

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.


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