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Right Turn
Posted at 04:00 PM ET, 01/12/2012

Santorum plugging away

Rick Santorum got a boost today from New Hampshire when the vote totals were certified by the secretary of state. He took fourth place with 23,408, dropping Newt Gingrich to fifth with 23,291. It’s a small, but welcome psychological lift for the Santorum team. Other than Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), Santorum is the only candidate to stick with Romney in the top four in both of the early contests. For those making the argument that he is the only viable alternative to Mitt Romney, the official New Hampshire returns come at an opportune time.

I spoke by phone a short time ago with Santorum advisor Hogan Gidley, who worked on the Mike Huckabee team in 2008 and also happens to be a former executive director of the South Carolina state Republican Party. Like his candidate, he won’t underplay the importance of South Carolina, but he dismisses the idea Santorum has to win there. He says, “South Carolina is a pivotal state. It’s an important state to the process. We’d love to win.” But he and Santorum also believe that the early states are simply winnowing the field. South Carolina is someplace, Gidley says, “We expect to do very well.” On advertising he notes, “We spent $30,000 in Iowa. We spent nothing in New Hampshire.” But in South Carolina, Santorum finally has the funds he feels are needed to be on competitive when it comes to TV time.

Santorum’s crowds, a far cry from the days in Iowa when his crowds started very small, are large. Unlike New Hampshire, there are no hecklers challenging him on gay marriage. Santorum gets what Gidley describes as an affirming “coo” from the crowd when he talks about marriage and pro-life issues.

Gidley disparages the media’s effort to declare the race all but over. “I continually have to laugh when press people say, ‘Mitt Romney has all this money and infrastructure.’” He adds with sarcasm, “What an inspiring message that is.” As the field narrows, Gidley is confident that conservatives will get a chance for a man-to-man comparison between Santorum and Romney. But he has a warning for social conservatives: “They dilly-dallied in 2008,” he said of the belated effort by religious conservatives to get behind Mike Huckabee. With the right fractured, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was able to grab South Carolina and the nomination. For social conservatives, Santorum is the only credible choice, Gidley contends. “Rick’s fought in the trenches with these folks,” he tells me.

But Santorum has resisted being pigeonholed as “just a social conservative.” In advancing a more populist economic plan, Santorum is making strides in convincing Republicans he’s the full-spectrum conservative they’ve been looking for. Santorum argues that the “good” thing about Ron Paul, domestic policy issues, won’t be able to get done, but on the “scary” issues, namely foreign policy, Paul will get his way given the powers of the presidency.

Santorum brings a message about creating opportunities for all Americans, and he has garnered praise for avoiding the anti-Bain attacks. Gidley says emphatically that Santorum is “not going to fall into the trap of attacking capitalism.” Moreover, he thinks Romney’s opponents have missed the boat by focusing on Bain rather than his time as Massachusetts governor. (“There’s plenty there with RomneyCare and state subsidized abortions,” he remarks.) “The problem isn’t being wealthy,” Gidley says. “We all want to be wealthy.” Rather, Gidley argues, “[Romney’s] disconnect is when he tries to be a common man. He’s not a common man.” In short, Gidley says, “The problem is not that he’s rich. It’s that he’s inauthentic.”

Romney’s lack of connection to voters is precisely the opening Santorum can use to wedge himself in between Romney and a conservative base that has not yet embraced Romney wholeheartedly.

Santorum continues to weave both social and economic policy into his message. Gidley maintains, “We’re not going to change our message. It’s good policy and it’s good politics.” He cites Santorum’s plan to entirely remove a corporate income tax for manufacturing companies. It’s not an idea the Wall Street Journal likes, but in South Carolina with over 9 percent unemployment it is a compelling idea. And, it’s something Santorum can get done, Gidley argues: “No Democrat can vote against it.” Even just the portion of Santorum’s economic plan allowing repatriation of overseas earnings, he says, could “create 2 to 4 million jobs.”

Santorum fully intends to press on to Florida after South Carolina. As other candidates become nonserious challengers (Texas Gov. Rick Perry is likely there already), Santorum hopes to become the last viable, acceptable conservative alternative to Romney. Considering how badly Gingrich has behaved (and that he finished behind Santorum in both Iowa and New Hampshire), there’s a good chance that will happen.But as Gidley says, Santorum has to do well in South Carolina.

By  |  04:00 PM ET, 01/12/2012

Categories:  2012 campaign

 
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