Conservatives have been down this road before, hoping that they have finally found the one “true” conservative to rally round for the GOP presidential nomination. But their hopes have been dashed: Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, Ricky Perry, Newt Gingrich – just about anyone but former governor Mitt Romney.
On Friday morning, former senator Rick Santorum and his well-scrubbed family brought thousands of conservatives meeting in Washington to their feet on the heels of his stunning victories over Romney and the rest of the Republican presidential field in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri.
This was a high profile victory lap for Santorum, a champion of social conservatives and the religious right. And it was an opportunity for conservatives to pit Santorum against Romney and Gingrich, the former House Speaker, in a daylong audition of sorts to determine who had the most compelling conservative bonafides.
For sure, Santorum was at the top of his game and generated the most buzz in the room at the annual gathering of the Conservative Political Action Conference. He threw plenty of red meat to the cheering crowd on topics ranging from “Obamacare” and contraception to global warming and drilling. He also repeatedly blasted Romney for being a moderate pragmatist who would abandon core conservative and religious values “for a hollow victory in November.”
“Why would undecided voters vote for a candidate of a party who the party is not excited about?” Santorum said of the former Massachusetts governor. “We need conservatives now to rally for a conservative to go into November, to excite the conservative base.”
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But whether Santorum can capture the fancy of the conservative base and his party as a whole – especially in light of a new CBS poll showing that 58 percent of Republicans disapprove of the entire field of candidates – remains to be seen. Even less certain is whether Santorum’s sudden surge after weeks of second-rate showings in primaries and caucuses will be the game changer he has hoped for, with Romney still holding a substantial lead in some national polls. Santorum lost momentum after his first place showing in Iowa, and he will need more solid showings and big gains in fundraising to mount a national campaign.
Romney gave as good as he got – arguing in a speech that he has adhered to conservative principles throughout his career as a politician and business executive.
Conservatives have complained from the beginning that Romney lacked the conservative DNA and stirring personality needed to take on President Obama this fall – a view repeatedly expressed by Santorum today.
But Romney gave as good as he got – arguing in a speech that he has adhered to conservative principles throughout his career as a politician and business executive, and that he was as much of a family man and religious as any of the other candidates.
In Massachusetts, he said, he was a “severely conservative Republican governor,” and had the “unique experience of defending conservative principles in the most liberal state in our union.”
He boasted that he was the only one of the four candidates who had never worked in the nation’s capital. And he portrayed Santorum -- not as a blue-collar populist from the Midwest -- but a “creature of Washington,” who has spent much of his career as a big-spending member of Congress and advocate for special interest groups.
“For three years we have suffered through the failures not only of a weak leader but of a bankrupt ideology,” Romney said of President Obama. “I’m convinced that if we do our job, if we lead with conviction and integrity, that history will record the Obama presidency as the last gasp of liberalism’s great failure – and a turning point for the conservative era to come.”
Romney did well during his early afternoon appearance, touching most of the right bases and generating frequent cheers and applause from the audience, but without generating the kind of enthusiasm that Santorum was able to do.
Others questioned whether Romney would follow through on promoting conservative values beyond pure economics. “This to me caps off two or three months where he has really pandered to the conservative movement—particularly the Tea Party. While the speech was good, and I trust his economics, I’m not sure that I believe he’s going to stick to what he said on everything else,” said Herbert Baumann, a real estate company owner from St. Louis Missouri, who aligns with the Tea Party.
While Santorum clearly has shaken up the Republican presidential campaign and raised anew questions about Romney’s ability to excite his party’s conservative base, his strong performance this week may have posed an even greater threat to Gingrich, who had hoped to ride to the GOP nomination this summer after unifying the splintered conservatives.
After Santorum’s speech, some Gingrich supporters in the audience conceded that they were having second thoughts about the Georgian and had begun inching towards Santorum’s camp. Gingrich, who spoke last today, asserted again he was the legitimate heir to the Reagan conservative legacy. But erstwhile Gingrich boosters said they were attracted to Santorum’s emphasis on family values, his focus on the plight of blue collar workers and the need to boost U.S. manufacturing, and his strong opposition to Obama’s health care reforms and cap and trade efforts to reduce global warming.
“Santorum’s the man – he’s a true conservative,” said Howard Moye, a real estate appraiser from Greenville, N.C. and one-time candidate for Congress. “I supported Newt Gingrich because I thought he was the best change for beating Romney and getting the nomination. But now I think Santorum will be the one. I wish Gingrich will step out or step aside.”
Dennis Reeves, a travel agent from Sherman, Tex., said he was “plenty surprised” by Santorum’s impressive performance. “I was always a Gingrich fan, but after listening to Santorum, he is now my second choice and I’m moving towards making him my first.”
Chadwick Ciocci, chairman of the Gingrich campaign steering committee from Connecticut, was less impressed with Santorum’s speech. “Newt has experience and accomplishments that Santorum doesn’t have,” he said. Noting that Gingrich helped Santorum break into congressional politics years ago, Ciocci said, “Why take the student when you have the teacher?”