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Right Turn
Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 02/14/2012

Path to the nomination: Romney vs. Santorum

We’ve seen this before: Mitt Romney leads the pack of presidential wanna-bes, a challenger arises, the media and Romney’s attacks (as well as the challenger’s own liabilities) do damage, the challenger fades and Romney moves back to the top of the pack. Now the challenger, the last viable one in sight, is Rick Santorum. Will he meet the same fate as Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, or are we in for a seesaw race akin to the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama race in 2008?

Santorum has assets that previous challengers had but also some liabilities that have not yet been exposed. He is, by any measure, a more personally stable character than Gingrich, a better debater than Rick Perry, a more knowledgable pol than Herman Cain and a more forceful personality than Tim Pawlenty. His staunch social conservatism and hawkish foreign policy have given the impression that he is a hardline conservative, although his economic record is more mixed and his willingness to promote bipartisan legislation is (alas) out of style among hard-core Tea Partyers these days.

He also has shown a discipline other candidates have lacked. His message is, as he likes to quote the Wall Street Journal editorial board, “supply side for the working man.”His attacks on Romney have been focused on RomneyCare, cap-and-trade and TARP. His argument that Romney has “given away” these issues and that a starker contrast with a more conservative candidate is preferable are subject to debate, but the conservative base has so far embraced that argument.

Now, in what for all intents and purposes is a two-man race, Romney has an affirmative message to flesh out and also the opportunity to exploit some Santorum weaknesses. (Just because he is the last not-Romney doesn’t mean he should be vetted any less seriously.)

Romney at CPAC reminded the crowd of his conservative agenda: re-design entitlements, cut government spending, reform tax policy, eliminate ObamaCare, reinstate the Mexico City policy and end funding for the United Nations Population Fund and for Planned Parenthood. He’s promised to roll out a more robust and specific tax reform plan. There is plenty of meat in there (and in prior policy proposals on foreign policy, domestic energy development, etc.), although he does not have a single unifying theme for his campaign. (“Cut government, grow the private sector,” perhaps). In sum, he’s running on a more explicitly conservative agenda than he has in the past, but he must present it more succinctly and more frequently.

With regard to Santorum, Romney needs to show some selectivity in his attacks. Having seen several pulverizing attacks, voters may well find a similar barrage unappealing. Moreover, he will need to prioritize the attacks, dropping those (e.g. earmarks) that haven’t gotten much traction.

In Michigan, Romney most powerful attacks may be with regard to Santorum’s very pro-union record. He voted against right-to-work legislation, against repealing Davis -Bacon (which saddles all contractors with union wage rates) and in favor of barring strike replacements. Those positions are understandable as a senator from a blue state, but it seems contradictory to claim that defense while chastising Romney’s deviations from conservative orthodoxy in a much more liberal state. Given the excesses of this administration with regard to recess appointments, an overreaching National Labor Relations Board (e.g. the Boeing case), and its genuflecting to Big Labor on everything from card check to rolling back regulations on union transparency, labor issues may rank higher in this year’s campaign. Romney, to date, hasn’t used this to his advantage, but it’s hard to imagine he’ll give Santorum a pass.

Romney’s other main line of attack has to do with Santorum’s lack of any executive experience. Santorum is a more experienced legislator than Sen. Barack Obama was when running for president. He’s certainly more conservative than Obama. But he has no more executive experience. In Arizona on Monday Romney hit on this point:

“Congressman Paul was a doctor, then went into government, but the other guys have spent their life entirely in government, and in my view it’s helpful to have been involved in two businesses, an Olympics and a state ... and to have a chance to run those as an executive.
We elected in President Obama someone who had never run anything, who had never been a leader. We’re not going to do that in the Republican Party. Let’s not nominate someone who hasn’t done anything and has not been a leader.”

Romney may make some headway if he can make the case that we need someone who actually knows how to get thing done, hire quality advisers, create and meet a budget, and garner public support for proposals that enable him to work his will on the legislature. Santorum simply hasn’t done that, and in his dark-horse campaign he is essentially a one-man band. In this respect Obama’s glaring inability to govern is an asset to Romney, and a red flare warning to Republicans. Obama’s abject failure to lead on everything from Syria to entitlement reform suggests that a risk-taker, strong-willed executive would be a pleasant change.

There are other concerns about Santorum (his anti-free trade votes and supporting the pro-choice, pro-Big Labor Arlen Specter for president in 1996 and for reelection to the Senate in 2004) among conservatives, although I find it ridiculous to assert, as one conservative blogger did on the radio with me yesterday, that Santorum is a “moderate.” In some respects, Santorum’s record as a legislator (support for Medicare Part D and No Child Left Behind) doesn’t seem to match the Tea Party furor for limited government, although it’s important to acknowledge how circumstances have changed since Santorum was in office.(I tried for several days to get responses from the Santorum campaign on these issues, but have not received responses as of yet. I will relate them once I hear back.)

At some level, however, the specifics become less important than the total package. Who has the aura of a confident leader? Who’s got the most coherent approach to our fiscal and national security challenges? Who will be able to focus most effectively on Obama’s greatest liability, his stewardship of the economy? The GOP electorate will figure that out week by week, state by state.

By  |  10:00 AM ET, 02/14/2012

 
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