A Santorum opening in South Carolina?


The emphasis in that sentence is on the word “may.” If I had to bet today, I’d bet that Romney wins South Carolina. He’s got a real base of support there, and South Carolina has a history of going with more establishment candidates. It’s the state where, after a vicious primary battle, George W. Bush put down John McCain’s rebellion in 2000. Romney has to be seen as the favorite.

But there is an interesting dynamic in the contest now that could work in Santorum’s favor. Both Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry have been unrelenting in their attacks on Romney. Some of those attacks will inevitably soften Romney’s support. In the meantime, as Carol Lee reports in the Wall Street Journal, Jon Huntsman is concentrating his efforts among moderate voters, hoping to pull enough of them away from Romney to deprive him of a South Carolina win and thus slow his momentum. If Romney can’t rally the moderates, he could be vulnerable.

 And this is where Santorum comes in: In a multi-candidate contest, candidates who lead the attack on the front-runner do not always win over the voters their assaults shake loose. Those voters often look for another alternative. By holding himself above the battle over Romney’s role in Bain Capital, Santorum may look appealing to conservatives who have quiet doubts about Romney’s career in private equity but don’t fully identify with the assaults Gingrich and Perry have launched. And Santorum has slowly built up enthusiasm among social and religious conservatives who play an important role in South Carolina.

 In other words, South Carolina could be a repeat of Iowa: Toward the end of the campaign, Santorum could emerge as the one candidate who can rally the anti-Romney vote. On top of this, a significant share of Ron Paul’s libertarian-leaning voters are social moderates. In a one-on-one battle between Romney and Santorum, they would probably prefer Romney. So Paul, who has largely been helpful to Romney so far, could cause him some difficulties in South Carolina by siphoning off another piece of his potential constituency.  

For now, this is only a theory. Romney seems to be getting stronger, not weaker. But if Romney falters, Santorum is the candidate best positioned to pick up the pieces — in South Carolina, if not necessarily later on.        

E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a twice-weekly column and on the PostPartisan blog. He is also a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a government professor at Georgetown University and a frequent commentator on politics for National Public Radio, ABC’s “This Week” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

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