In politics as in life, timing is everything – and former senator Rick Santorum has great timing. He played bit parts in the early GOP debates while others like Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich hogged the limelight. He outhustled his rivals in Iowa and won a narrow majority in the caucuses, although it took nearly two weeks before the state party got the count right. And he kept up his spirits after suffering repeated drubbings in high profile GOP contests in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida.
Last night, the long-suffering social conservative and abortion foe hit pay dirt, sweeping to victories in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado over Romney, Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas in non-binding beauty contests and party caucuses. Santorum won with 40 percent of the vote in Colorado, 45 percent in Minnesota and a whopping 55 percent in Missouri.
“The wind is at his back now,” former Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, a Santorum backer, told MSNBC even before the votes started rolling in. “There is every reason to believe that it will only get better as time goes by.”
It remains to be seen whether Santorum, 54, a lawyer who served in Congress from 1995 to 2006, can parlay these three wins into a leading role in the presidential sweepstakes. But it was a brilliant strategic move for the Pennsylvanian to invest three weeks of effort and limited campaign resources in three states that Romney and Gingrich either passed over or took for granted.
Santorum was the only candidate to do any meaningful campaigning in Missouri, appearing in St. Charles County and across the state last week, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. While Romney got support from many establishment Republicans in Colorado, such as former Gov. Bill Owens and Attorney General John Suthers, Santorum got support from leaders who are further to the right: Tancredo and former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, according to the Denver Post.
Santorum’s strong showing in state contests dominated by social conservatives and Tea Party adherents once again helped to scramble the GOP presidential campaign and provided grist for anti-Romney forces who insist that he lacks the conservative DNA and personality to rally his party against President Obama this fall.
Gingrich was not on the ballot in Missouri, and he trailed far behind Romney and Santorum in Minnesota and Colorado. Gingrich picked up just 11 percent of the vote in Minnesota and 13 percent in Colorado. Paul placed second in Minnesota, with 27 percent of the vote, but picked up only 12 percent of the vote in both Colorado and Missouri.
Romney forces stressed that there were no delegates at stake in any of the three contests, and that they were husbanding their resources for more meaningful contests in Michigan and Arizona February 28, and then the ten races on Super Tuesday, March 6. Four years ago, Sen. John McCain of Arizona lost a slew of primaries after winning in New Hampshire and Florida, and still went on to sew up the Republican presidential nomination. Romney and his Super PAC allies have also signaled that they will use their enormous financial advantage to step up attacks on Santorum as a Washington insider who showered his state with earmarks and other federal pork barrel spending on education and transportation while he served as a House member and senator from Pennsylvania.
Santorum is clearly well positioned to rewrite the GOP presidential campaign narrative and wage a plausible candidacy going forward, and he is doing that in three important ways:
- Challenging the notion of the inevitability of Mitt Romney’s candidacy. It was no surprise that Santorum won in Minnesota, where the GOP caucuses are dominated by social conservatives, evangelical Christians and Tea Party adherents, and in Missouri -- with its large Bible belt. Santorum’s religious-tinged political messages all played well there. But his upset victory over Romney in Colorado was an eye-opener, and vividly signaled the growing disenchantment with the former Massacushetts governor among grass roots conservatives and the religious right. Romney won the Colorado caucuses four years ago with 60 percent of the vote, and he appeared to be cruising to another victory yesterday, albeit by a smaller percentage.
- Challenging Gingrich’s claim that he is the legitimate heir to the Reagan conservative legacy and looms as the one who can lead the party to victory this fall. “Conservatism is alive and well,” Santorum told his supporters. “I don’t stand here and claim to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. I stand here to be the conservative alternative to Barack Obama.” Santorum has proved his bonafides as a conservative with solid showings in Iowa as well as his performance last night, and with the backing of conservative religious groups and anti-abortion forces. Santorum, a family man who won kudos from the media for suspending his campaign to rush home to be with an ailing child, has none of the personal baggage that plagues the thrice-married Gingrich who asked his second wife for an “open marriage.”
- Proffering a provocative new attack on Obama. During his victory speech last night, Santorum portrayed the president as an elitist who looks down on the average Americans and thinks nothing of imposing his views on others – even when it violates their religious principles. “He thinks he knows better,” Santorum said. “He thinks he’s smarter than you. He thinks he’s someone who is a privileged person who should be able to rule over all of you.”
Santorum’s five percentage-point victory over Romney in Colorado had to be a wakeup call to Romney that his message of executive competence and his vast campaign financial resources are not nearly enough to carry the day, and that he must sharpen his differences with President Obama in order to galvanize his party. Moreover, after trouncing Romney in a large, Midwestern state like Missouri, Santorum can legitimately argue that he can do extremely well going one-on-one with Romney when the former governor doesn’t flood the zone with negative ads, as he has done in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida. “Tonight we had an opportunity to see what a campaign looked like when one candidate isn’t outspent by five or ten-to-one by negative ads impugning their integrity and distorting their record,” Santorum told supporters at a victory celebration in St. Charles, Mo. “This is the more accurate representation frankly of what the fall race will look like.” If nothing else, Santorum has earned a place at the table as a serious contender and a magnet for campaign contributions that have eluded him until now.
As a former member of the House and Senate and a Republican Party leader, Santorum can go toe-to-toe with Gingrich on most domestic and foreign policy issues – especially on health care reform, the government bailout of Wall Street, environmental issues and foreign policy. And, in the wake of the recent controversy over the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s funding of Planned Parenthood, the Obama administration’s treatment of religious hospitals in health care reform and Tuesday’s appeals court decision striking down the California gay marriage ban, Santorum, a rigid Catholic, has plenty of ammunition to stir his conservative base. Finally, the garrulous, wonky Santorum is far more youthful and upbeat than the perpetually scowling, dour Gingrich, and is more refreshing to watch. It will be interesting to see how he does in the next GOP debate matchup on Feb. 22. “My feeling is that Speaker Gingrich has had his chance in the arena and came up short in Florida and Nevada, and now it’s our turn,” Santorum says.
Santorum’s newly tooled campaign rhetoric echoes mounting criticism from Catholics and other faith leaders that a new administration rule requiring certain religious institutions, including hospitals, to cover contraception as part of their employee health plans violates their religious faith and constitutional rights. Last week, priests around the country read from their pulpits strongly worded letters from Catholic leaders condemning the Obama administration actions. The issue is causing major headaches for the White House and underscores the challenges for Obama in trying to placate his liberal base while courting Catholics and other religious voters in key battleground states, including Ohio and Pennsylvania. “Unlike when God gives you rights, the government can take them away, and when the government gives you rights the government can tell you how to exercise those rights . . . whether it is against the teachings of your church or not,” Santorum said.