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Right Turn
Posted at 03:11 PM ET, 01/05/2012

Slow and steady for Santorum

The lesson of Iowa is that expectations are everything. Rick Santorum is now enjoying a bump in the polls in New Hampshire and nationally. However, he risks losing momentum by setting his sights too high in a state in which Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) still has considerable advantages and is likely to finish in second place. Certainly, Santorum is out of single digits, but if he pegs “success” to coming in second, he can turn a good showing into a “Santorum falters” headline.

Many on the right are doing him no favors. Republican honcho Mike Murphy tweets that Santorum has more than a 50 percent shot to beat Paul and come in with 25 percent of the vote. (He’s barely in single digits now.) But, in fact, that may not be all that realistic. Virtually all the TV ad space there has already been bought. (An influential Santorum supporter told me on the phone this afternoon, “There’s nothing to buy. Whatever he gets will be a result of Iowa.) Paul has a vibrant organization there from 2008. And the state’s biggest conservative paper is hawking for Newt Gingrich.

For Santorum, the first goal in his Cinderella campaign is to consolidate Republican support, in essence to become the only not-Romney alternative. That need not take place before South Carolina, but by the time that state has counted the votes on Jan. 21, Santorum hopes to be the only one within shouting distance of Romney. As important as the margin between him and Romney is at that point, he’ll want to see the other GOP competitors leave the race or be down in the low single digits. In other words, the top tier needs to be Romney and him.

In that regard, the Santorum camp should be heartened that Rick Perry is struggling in New Hampshire (not even at 1 percent in the latest Suffolk University tracking poll) and nationally (less than 6 percent in the RealClearPolitics average).

The Santorum supporter also confided that for now his candidate is aided by the infuriated Newt Gingrich, who can pummel Mitt Romney and spare Santorum the need to begin his assault on Romney, at a time most voters are just getting to know Santorum.

In sum, neither Santorum nor his supporters should get ahead of themselves. If he can methodically eliminate other conservative rivals, he can, by the time of the Florida primary, become the true not-Romney choice. It is then that Santorum can define himself as a full-spectrum conservative with a working-class background and draw contrasts with Romney.

But New Hampshire isn’t South Carolina, where there’s no avoiding the need for Santorum to be very competitive with Romney. For now, Santorum has at least a few days to continue to define himself, to paint those sharp contrasts with the president he spoke about in Iowa on Tuesday night, and to begin to make the sort of emotional connection to voters that has eluded Romney.

By  |  03:11 PM ET, 01/05/2012

Categories:  2012 campaign

 
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