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Right Turn
Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 01/27/2012

Will Santorum overtake Gingrich?

Mitt Romney last night most likely secured a win for himself in Florida. In three polls released before the debate yesterday he led Newt Gingrich by a margin of seven to nine points. That may well increase after last night’s outing, both because of Gingrich’s poor showing and because a rising Rick Santorum takes strong conservatives, Tea Partyers and religious voters away from Gingrich.

There are a few take-aways from last night’s debate, all of which should generally cheer principled conservatives.

First, Wolf Blitzer, a well-balanced crowd and tough debate opponents deprived Gingrich of his crutch — attacking the media. Rage at the media is not a basis, at least not a rational one, for choosing a presidential candidate. In fact, it perpetuates the very qualities that render conservative candidates unappealing to independent voters. Angry and intemperate Republicans make for losing candidates.

Second, once Gingrich was silenced (literally, several times for some minutes at a stretch) there was a hearty debate on health care, the economy and Latin America. The prospect of an extended battle between two candidates hitting their stride, Romney and Santorum, should cheer those looking to generate excitement, involve the Republican electorate and ultimately determine the most capable candidate to face off against President Obama. It should also put to bed the fantasy that some other candidate can be dragged into the race.

Third, Romney may have finally answered at least some of the naysayers. (The vitriolic anti-Romney types will never be satisfied.) He was criticized for being insufficiently tough, combative and conservative. He showed himself to be all those things last night. Even Gingrich, in a slip of the tongue, conceded at one point that Romney had become “more conservative” since he was Massachusetts governor. If Romney is the nominee he will have earned it and been sharpened for the general-election battle.

And finally, the irrational, hysterical right-wing voices in the blogosphere and talk radio (the same who had defended Herman Cain and Texas Gov. Rick Perry) have once again been embarrassed and defanged. In their lust for the most combative candidate they have repeatedly made the same error: fixating on extreme, untenable candidates and labeling critics as the toadies of the “establishment.” Once again, we have seen that a conservatism based on pure negative emotion (angry) and victimhood (the MSM is out to get us!) ultimately holds little appeal even within the conservative GOP primary electorate.

Grassroots excitement and energy (of the type exhibited by many of the Tea Party groups) must be tempered by good judgment in candidate selection if Republicans are going to win and have a chance to govern. If, as I suspect, we move toward a two-person race between Santorum and Romney, the GOP, including the Tea Partyers, will have learned a valuable lesson: You can’t win elections with candidates who are cranks.

If Romney goes on to win Florida, he’ll enjoy a bit of a lull in the race in February. No debates and a series of contests in Romney-friendly states (e.g. Nevada, Michigan) may help him cement his lead. But it also gives Santorum time to supplant Gingrich, who will be deprived of his debate theatrics, as the leading alternative to Romney.

There was some question as to whether Santorum would be able to build on his success in Iowa. He now has set himself up to do that and to show the right that conservatism is more than attitude. As a smart and articulate proponent of conservatism with an interesting twist on traditional free-market economics, he’ll be a welcomed alternative to the Newtonian politics of outrage, anger and self-delusion.

By  |  10:00 AM ET, 01/27/2012

Categories:  2012 campaign, Conservative movement

 
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