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Post Partisan
Posted at 03:25 PM ET, 12/30/2011

The Santorum-Perry showdown


Perhaps I should confess that, having called the attention of readers nine days ago to the Rick Santorum Iowa surge that is now the object of considerable journalistic interest, I have a pundit’s vested interest in having an early call pan out. (We’ll talk about my mistakes another day.) As I see it, only one thing can stop the former Pennsylvania senator from doing exceptionally well in Tuesday’s caucuses, and that is Texas Gov. Rick Perry hanging on to the support he now has.

Santorum has gone a long way toward consolidating the backing of religious conservatives, who traditionally loom large in the caucuses. Mike Huckabee swept Iowa four years ago as the sole representative of that important GOP force. This time, the evangelical vote has been fractured among Santorum, Perry, Rep. Michele Bachmann and former House speaker Newt Gingrich. Santorum has clearly profited from Gingrich’s collapse and Bachmann’s troubles. But Perry has spent a fortune in Iowa, and he has run about as explicitly a Christian campaign as anyone since the Rev. Pat Robertson in 1988. If Perry stays at 10 percent or above, my hunch is that most of his support will come from people who would otherwise go Santorum’s way now.

Perry’s campaign seems to see things exactly this way and has launched an attack ad against Santorum, realizing that the obverse of this theory is also true: A surging Santorum will start gobbling up Perry’s vote. (If Herman Cain can invoke Pokemon, I can use a Pac-Man metaphor.)

My hunch remains that Santorum is better positioned, partly because Perry has been through the wringer as a result of his various verbal mistakes and also because Iowa evangelical leaders realize that if they are to remain a major force in the caucuses, they need to deliver in a big way to a single candidate. Santorum, who already has some important religious conservatives on his side, seems to be their safest bet now.

So a lot will depend on what happens in evangelical churches across Iowa on Sunday. If conservative Christian pastors start rallying around Santorum, he could pass from being the candidate who will do far better than expected to becoming a real threat to Mitt Romney and Ron Paul. Over the next 24 hours, both Santorum and Perry will working very hard to influence what happens in those houses of worship. They’ll probably be praying hard, too.

By  |  03:25 PM ET, 12/30/2011

 
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