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ThePlumLIneGS whorunsgov plumline
Posted at 12:53 PM ET, 01/06/2012

The Santorum surge is alive and well

With a few days to go until the New Hampshire primary, the Santorum bounce is healthy and thriving. That means he has a real chance to win South Carolina on January 21st — which would in turn enable him to build a credible national campaign heading into Super Tuesday in early March.

CNN has just released a brand new poll of South Carolina GOP primary voters that shows Mitt Romney solidly in the lead there (at 37%) with Rick Santorum (19%) and Newt Gingrich (18%) tied for second, followed farther back by Ron Paul and then Rick Perry. Of course we should be careful about any individual poll, but it’s safe to say that Santorum has already jumped from an asterisk to a real contender. There’s every chance he could keep gaining momentum. Remember, this is only the immediate aftermath of Iowa; people are only beginning to hear who Rick Santorum is. There’s plenty of time for further, dramatic shifts in the next two weeks.

The odds are good that Santorum is going to be the big story out of New Hampshire, just as he was coming out of Iowa. After all, he’s already leapfrogged the rest of the pack and moved into third place there. Even if he doesn’t move up any further — and he almost certainly will — a solid third-place finish behind Romney (who is expected to win) and Paul (who is perceived correctly as having no chance at the nomination) means that media attention will mostly go to Santorum. At that point he will clearly be perceived as a conservative alternative to Romney who has real credibility.

That means Newt Gingrich’s numbers in South Carolina and elsewhere will continue to tank. Publicity-starved Rick Perry is unlikely to revive his candidacy there even if he stays in, while Jon Huntsman will presumably drop out after New Hampshire.

Does this all mean that Santorum is a sure bet to win in South Carolina? No, not at all. Romney has a huge warchest that Santorum won’t be able to match, even though he will raise quite a bit of money off of the Iowa and New Hampshire results. That translates into organization and TV ads. Santorum will likely have the advantage in favorable press attention. That leaves support from party groups and actors, which could lead to high-profile endorsements. Romney has a large lead there at this time, but not large enough to consider the nomination a sure thing for him; and so, we should watch closely to see whether conservatives rally to Santorum. And of course we still have to see how good a job Santorum does at scaling up for a national fight.

It’s certainly possible that Romney could wrap up the nomination with a decisive win in South Carolina. But if Santorum’s surge continues — very likely with elite conservative support, but even possible if most of those who are currently waiting continue to stay neutral — then he’ll wind up doing well enough in South Carolina to survive and force the contest on to Florida and then to Super Tuesday in early March and perhaps even beyond.

By  |  12:53 PM ET, 01/06/2012

 
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