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Right Turn
Posted at 09:00 AM ET, 12/30/2011

What’s after Iowa for Santorum?

There is a week between Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. The first few days will be consumed by tea leaf reading, and, if current trends continue, a slew of “Wow! Rick Santorum!” stories. He’ll get media attention and a boost going into New Hampshire and won’t for a change need to beg for questions in the two debates in the days just before the primary.

Santorum is in single digits in New Hampshire polls. But that will certainly change if he finishes in the top three spots. He’ll then face a question: Spend time and resources in New Hampshire or focus on South Carolina’s Jan. 21 contest. When I spoke with his senior adviser Hogan Gidley this week, he stressed that Santorum had visited New Hampshire frequently and would definitely compete there. And with only a week to go and two debates, it makes sense for Santorum to try to secure a spot as the leading not-Romney candidate.

Traditionally, Iowa winners haven’t done well in New Hampshire. At first blush, a strong social conservative with a hardcore persona may not appear well suited to New Hampshire, which is more libertarian and allows independents to vote. That said, Santorum’s stress on manufacturing jobs and spending cuts will play well there. What he can’t afford would be to show poorly, thereby losing his Iowa momentum. Finishing behind candidates he bested in Iowa would set him back going into South Carolina.

South Carolina would be an attractive target for Santorum. Depending on how many other social conservatives stick it out, he could either help subdivide the vote, handing Mitt Romney a victory just as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won against a trio of conservatives in 2008, or he could break out and become a real contender for the nomination.

Compared with Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina is a larger state where media buys are more critical; retail politics alone isn’t enough to win. It’s here that Santorum will need to show some organizational muscle and scrape together enough cash to air ads to compete with Romney, who likely will be the only candidate other than Ron Paul with adequate funding.

As each of the other candidates who have risen in the polls have experienced, with success will come scrutiny for Santorum. Unlike Cain or Gingrich, however, he’ll not have personal scandals or baggage to weigh him down. We’ll hear a lot about his loss in Pennsylvania in 2006, and his explanation that he was one of many Republicans to get wiped out that year. On economics, he’ll pressed to explain his pro-manufacturing tax plan.

But there are many pluses for him. He remains largely unknown to many voters, so he has room to build a following. His ability to weave social and economic issues together is unparalleled in the field. And, unlike Ron Paul, he is solid and knowledgable on national security

More than his positions or his electability, Santorum will undergo a personal test. He will need to show a more confident, yes presidential, demeanor. He’ll get a slew of tough questions and be on the receiving end of his opponents’ barbs. What will be critical is for him to respond calmly, show good humor and answer concerns directly. In that regard the two debates between Iowa and New Hampshire will loom large, giving him the opportunity to show that he can rise to the occasion and be regarded as presidential material.

Is he a long shot to win the nomination? Of course. But the hard part was always to get on the scoreboard in Iowa. If he does that in impressive fashion, he’ll have considerable running room. In 2008, New Hampshire propelled McCain to the front of the pack. We’ll see if Iowa can do the same for Santorum this time around and whether he can keep pace with Romney state by state.

By  |  09:00 AM ET, 12/30/2011

Categories:  2012 campaign

 
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