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Right Turn
Posted at 09:33 AM ET, 02/29/2012

Santorum should ignore the spin, reshape his agenda

Ohio is Rick Santorum’s Michigan. If Michigan was a state that Mitt Romney had to win, both because it was, as Santorum said, “in his backyard” and to prove he could win in the Rust Belt, the same is true of Santorum in the Buckeye State. A loss there undercut his claim to be the blue-collar vote-getter.

Santorum now has a healthy lead in meaningless Ohio polls, all taken before his dual losses last night. But Michigan should be a wake-up call, and he should not buy into his own spin that a loss was really a win. In politics, it is always better to win than lose.

If he is smart, he’ll regroup and learn an important lesson: He won’t win the nomination talking about every social position that pops into his head, most especially if it is phrased in terms that put off average voters. He is, after all, running for the presidency of a country of people with in­cred­ibly diverse religious views and even quite a number of people with little if any religious attachments. He will, if he comes through Super Tuesday, need to address the controversy he has created by past and current rhetoric but not now, not in the brief time he has to make his case to Ohio voters.

(The Wall Street Journal editors echo a suggestion on the topic of religion that I’ve been making for some time: “Mr. Santorum should consider a serious speech of his own on the subject, of the sort Kennedy delivered, rather than always speaking off the cuff in TV interviews or at town halls. It’s nice to hear an unscripted candidate, but a serious subject like the role of religion in modern public life deserves more thoughtful treatment.”)

First, Santorum should disregard all the piffle suggesting Michigan showed Romney to be weak. In fact, it demonstrated a resilience and Romney’s ability to shift gears (from biography to agenda) that many thought he didn’t have. Santorum, whatever his money problems and whatever temptations lie beyond Ohio, needs to spend the lion’s share of his time in Ohio, making his case on economic grounds.

Santorum might consider whether the utility of Romneycare has been used up. There is not a primary voter in the country who doesn’t know Romney pioneered a plan that took the individual mandate out of the think tanks and into public policy. But is this the issue on which Santorum is going to win? It hasn’t sunk Romney yet.

Santorum, rather than retread the same and increasingly tired argument that his record is more conservative than Romney’s (a dubious proposition considering Santorum’s Senate record), might get more traction by showing that his own views are bolder, more effective and have more appeal than Romney’s. Romney got a boost when he rolled out a comprehensive tax plan. Santorum should borrow a page from that book and make himself the candidate of conservative reform.

He says he can balance the budget in five years? Tell us how. He says the public schools are a mess? Tell us what he’d do to change that. He thinks Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan is too timid? Explain in detail his own proposals and make the case that current retirees should contribute something to solving our debt. In other words, rather than arguing about the past or outbidding Newt Gingrich in the wild rhetoric follies he should make the argument that he is the boldest reformer.

It’s an approach that would appeal to upscale fiscal conservatives (who have been put off by his manufacturing-tax gambit), and it would appeal to those Rust Belt voters who want the debt gone, schools improved and economic vitality restored. It would take him from preacher to leader and give him the chance to show that he is not the dour character that appeared a couple of weeks ago in place of the feisty underdog.

The lesson of Michigan is not that “money wins” or that “Romney can win at home.” Remember, Romney crushed the opposition in Arizona, as well. The real take-away and the key to Santorum’s comeback, is that voters crave substance and want someone they think that get us from the Obama doldrums to a better future.

By  |  09:33 AM ET, 02/29/2012

 
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