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Right Turn
Posted at 09:15 AM ET, 02/16/2012

Santorum can’t expect to coast

In the bubble of a campaign it is easy to be swayed by campaign hacks and hangers-on that everything is fine, perfectly fine. But a candidate is likely to run into trouble if he merely shrugs off legitimate assaults on his record, electability and ideology. Mitt Romney was in that fix going into South Carolina; Now it’s Rick Santorum who is burying his head in the sand. And it is especially problematic for Santorum, who lacks presidential-level advisers.

So far, Santorum has laughed off Romney’s attacks or attacked Romney in return for being too negative. But how is that going to work in the debate next week? (Is Mitt Romney right that you are a toady for Big Labor? He’s so negative!) More to the point, some legitimate issues have surfaced, and he’d be smart to address them before they become real liabilities and dash his sky-high expectations for a win in Michigan.

There are concerns about Santorum’s record on Big Labor. There are misgivings about his anti-conservative tax reform scheme to favor manufacturers. (Keith Hennessey, a former Bush official who now supports Romney, e-mails me: “The polite term for this is industrial policy. The less polite label is state-managed capitalism.”) [See update below.] There is the gender gap. And there are a raft of statements on women, personal morality and the family that will, in the minds of many swing voters (especially female voters but also upscale, suburban voters), render him unpalatable. He risks losing women voters, libertarians and fiscal conservatives if these criticisms sink in.

These aren’t small issues, and it’s not unfair to raise them. In fact it is essential, just as it was critical to vet Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and others who ultimately proved not to be up for the task of running for president.

The way to make Romney seem more conservative and more electable is for Santorum to let these issues fester without a substantive response. Does he not have any? Or does he imagine the ever-shifting anti-Romney voters are so enamored of him that they’ll tune out any more information about his record and positions? The latter suggests that he thinks the Republican electorate is stupid.

Santorum’s diffidence in responding to criticism may be attributable to his conviction that the conservative blogosphere, which has been rapidly anti-Romney but is slowly becoming more critical of Santorum, represents the primary electorate as a whole. (He’s probably smart enough to ignore mainstream media, which are cheering for him, believing him to be far less formidable and mockable than Romney.)

But again and again, we’ve seen that right-wing media are poor indicators and predictors of Republican sentiment. The right-wing blogosphere is younger, overwhelmingly male and significantly more conservative that the average primary voter. After all, very few of the talk show hosts and blogger would vote for Romney, yet in the nominating process more than 1.1 million people have voted for him (Santorum has about 431,000).

Santorum has been told that he’s the most capable anti-Romney candidate. But that doesn’t mean that he is immune to the same fate as the other Romney rivals. Unless he responds effectively and without rancor to a range of appropriate criticisms, he’ll find that a lot of that boosterism was misleading. And he will also discover that the way to make a successful businessman seem more in touch with ordinary Americans is to compare him with a hectoring pol who’s going to tell you that your life choices are “harmful.”

UPDATE (10:45 a.m.): Mr. Hennessey emails that he is not supporting any candidate and his comments were addressed to the policy question regarding favoring one industry over others, not Santorum specifically.

By  |  09:15 AM ET, 02/16/2012

 
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