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Right Turn
Posted at 08:30 AM ET, 02/09/2012

Santorum should play to win, not to avoid losing

There are two competing ways for Rick Santorum to approach the Michigan and Arizona Republican primaries set for Feb. 28. Ross Douthat presents one:

In the looming Michigan and Arizona primaries, then, the important thing for Santorum is less to beat [Mitt] Romney [than] to get what he got last night: Clear separation from the former Speaker, and enough momentum (a fickle beast, I know) to make him seem like the obvious choice for voters in states like Tennessee and Oklahoma and Georgia who otherwise would have gone for [Newt] Gingrich. If Santorum can pull that off, he’ll be able to win enough states and delegates to stay in the race for the long haul (notwithstanding his likely absence from the ballot in both Virginia and Indiana), and Romney probably won’t be able to clinch the nomination until big winner-take-all states like New York and California cast their votes — not till April, in other words, and possibly not till June.

On one hand, that’s an appealing scenario for Santorum (he doesn’t need to win on Feb. 28); On the other hand, the story ends in his defeat, albeit a defeat postponed until the late spring.

The other narrative recognizes that if Mitt Romney racks up two wins on Feb. 28 he will reset the race once again, casting his three losses in primaries this week as a brief aberration resulting from low turnout and his decision to devote resources to other races. In this view, Santorum has to win one of these contests. If he doesn’t do that, Romney heads into Super Tuesday (March 6) with momentum (for what that is worth in this primary season), decides to ration the debates and simply runs out the clock.

The first approach allows Santorum time to roam through the Super Tuesday states and to lower expectations. The latter might actually deal a significant blow to Romney, especially if the defeat is in his home state of Michigan. A Santorum win in either state would settle the argument over whether he can win only in states with high concentrations of social conservatives. Some still have to be convinced. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board (which may hold some sway with donors) complains:

Mr. Santorum often gives the impression that he views the economy as a secondary issue, something he’ll get to after he saves the traditional family. But a President can do only so much to shape the culture, while in the current moment he can do a great deal more to help the economy
Policy also matters, and Mr. Santorum often sounds as if his economic ideas are a subset of his social agenda. His two signature proposals — a tax preference for manufacturers and tripling the child tax credit — would distort investment decisions and further politicize the tax code. The two-term Senator isn’t about to drop the proposals, but he’d do better politically to cast them as part of the larger priority of reviving the economy.

The way to dispel that impression is to win in a big industrial state with a bold economic agenda.

To a large degree Santorum is still operating in a realm in which voters like him but don’t necessarily think he can win the nomination. Only wins in big states can change that perception and pull in large donors. For that reason it seems he’s got to go for a win. Having committed himself to Michigan already (“We think Michigan’s a great place for us to plant our flag and talk about jobs and manufacturing — giving opportunities for everybody in America to rise”), he’s now created the expectation that he intends to win. So, to some degree he’s got no choice: He must play to win.

That means spending a good deal of time in Michigan. That means making the case for his economic agenda, sounding credible on spending and entitlement reform, and sketching out in vivid terms what his pro-manufacturing agenda would mean for the state.

Until now Santorum has hung tight in a series of states, refusing to accept a poor showing (e.g. Florida) as definitive. But the stakes are different now. He is the only other player in the top tier. If he can’t take Romney down in a blue-collar state where, as the president would put it, there are plenty of people “clinging” to those guns and Bibles and where he doesn’t need to be in multiple states simultaneously, where does that opening come to win (instead of just prolonging defeat)? He should seize the moment.

By  |  08:30 AM ET, 02/09/2012

Categories:  2012 campaign

 
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