Posted at 01:03 PM ET, 02/22/2012

Rick Santorum: It’s the authenticity, stupid

There’s no question that Rick Santorum’s headline-grabbing statements on contraception, Obama’s “theology” and his 2008 remarks on Satan are about religion.

But they’re also about something else: Santorum’s contention that he’s a more authentic candidate than Mitt Romney.

Santorum has been arguing ever since he entered the race that he’s the most authentically conservative candidate, but a crowded field and low name ID were among the obstacles he faced in making that case to voters.

Now, the first of those obstacles has been all but removed – most of the other contenders for the “not-Romney” vote have dropped out, making it a Romney-Santorum race in a number of upcoming contests, as our colleague Aaron Blake reports.

One remaining obstacle for Santorum in competing with Romney – Santorum’s low name ID and the lack of media attention to his candidacy – has now been remedied, thanks in part to the unrelenting focus on his provocative campaign-trail statements over the past week.

Indeed, while it’s still unclear whether Santorum’s remarks have happened by chance or as part of a concerted effort, his campaign seems to be using them as part of the following strategy:

1.Mitt Romney, despite having won victories in several big states, still hasn’t been able to close the deal with Republican primary voters, many of whom view him as inauthentic and insufficiently conservative.

2. Santorum – outspent and out-organized by the Romney camp -- makes a provocative statement (usually, but not necessarily, related to social issues) at an event with supporters.

3. The press picks up on the comment and seizes on it as the latest data point in a narrative that Santorum holds outside-the-mainstream views.

4.Santorum blasts the media for nitpicking and argues that his penchant for making provocative statements is proof that he’s speaking from the heart – not reading from a teleprompter, not using talking points, and not poll-testing his positions.

That was precisely the argument Santorum made in Columbus on Saturday, when hours after the “theology” remarks, he told reporters, “People are looking for someone who doesn’t read off a teleprompter; that actually tells you what they believe, and can do so with some consistency.”

“They’re looking for someone authentic that they can trust, who has a clear idea of where to take this country,” he said. “And while they may not agree with everything I believe in, I think they feel like they have someone that they can trust, who’s actually going to what they say they’re going to do.”

On Tuesday night at a campaign event in Phoenix, Santorum fine-tuned that response, appearing to pivot more toward an attack on Romney by dropping phrases like “robotic” and “consultants” into a defense of his past statements.

It’s likely the same defiant tone he’ll take at a tea party rally here in Tucson and in Wednesday night’s CNN debate.

The media focus on some of Santorum’s more provocative statements and views almost certainly won’t die down, but that provides him with an opportunity to contrast himself with Romney, who has the opposite problem: His difficulty persuading voters that he’s authentic.

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin essentially made Santorum’s case for him in a “Hannity” interview Tuesday night.

“Look what Santorum’s going through with things that he has said and said in the past, with the lamestream media taking things out of context and trying to subscribe to him that traditional normal-type negative narrative that they want to pin on any conservative,” Palin told Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity.

“I’ve been through that also,” she added. “Look at what Santorum’s going through and how that is making him tougher, more articulate, more focused on his true convictions and not being afraid to stand strong on his principles, not backing away from what he believes in. I respect that.”

Santorum is gambling that, come Tuesday’s primaries in Arizona and Michigan, voters will, too.

By  |  01:03 PM ET, 02/22/2012

Tags:  presidential election, republican party, Election 2012

 
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