By A.B. Stoddard - 03/21/12 10:22 PM EDT
Somewhere, buried in Rick Santorum’s fatally flawed campaign messaging, were winning words. Had he committed to them, the former senator could have derailed Mitt Romney’s path to the GOP nomination. Despite Romney’s overpowering resources and organization, Santorum’s potent argument — that the party could not throw the issue of healthcare away by nominating someone who had supported mandates — was his key to victory, but he threw it away.
With little money or staff, Santorum won Iowa and then three surprise victories on Feb. 7 in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri. He rocketed from the bottom as a passionate, articulate, indefatigable campaigner who took every question from every eager voter. It was the pivotal moment in the race none of the Romney rivals who preceded him had achieved — and Santorum blew it. He veered off course, and out of this millennium, enthusiastically bemoaning birth-control pills, free prenatal testing and college education. He insulted Obama, calling him a snob, and President Kennedy. Santorum, a devout Catholic, said Kennedy’s insistence on a strong separation of church and state made him want to throw up.
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On the night he lost the Michigan primary to Romney by 3 points, the exit polls told the story. He could have easily made up the votes to win from some of the women Romney won, the Catholics Romney won, the older voters Romney won, the voters earning more than $100,000 whom Romney won, and those voters with college degrees Romney won. That night Santorum seemed to acknowledge he had let it slip away — he brought out his mom and paid tribute to her education and years as a working mother, as well as his daughter and his wife. And he called Obama’s healthcare law the biggest issue in the campaign, a question of fundamental freedom: “They’re going to give you the right to healthcare; that’s what President Obama promised. But, of course, when the government gives you a right, they can take that right away. And when the government gives you that right, they can tell you how to exercise that right. And they do — not just what doctors you can see and what insurance policies or how much you’re going to get fined if you don’t do what the government tells you to do, but even go so far as to tell you how to exercise your faith as part of your healthcare bill. If the government can go that far with ObamaCare, just think what’s next.”
Combined with his push for fewer business regulations and less taxation, Santorum’s message on ObamaCare was all he needed to win over enough Romney voters to close the gap and beat him. It was the key to his appeal to independent voters, and to those voters focused more on the economy than the social issues Santorum has built a reputation championing.
But he strayed, and lost Ohio by 1 percentage point. Then he strayed again, decrying the dangers of porn, claiming the Obama administration “seems to favor pornographers over children and families” because it has “refused to enforce obscenity laws.” So this week he lost Illinois by more than 11 points. He won’t recover.
Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.