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Posted at 11:36 AM ET, 01/21/2012

Rick Santorum wins! And still can’t catch a break

CHARLESTON, S.C. — By the time we figured out Rick Santorum had won Iowa, it didn’t seem to matter. By the time evangelical leaders endorsed him, it was too little, too late. And by the time he got to primary day in South Carolina, the most conservative candidate left in the race is running at the back of the pack in polls, neck and neck with a guy who for all intents and purposes opposes war.


Former Sen. Rick Santorum speaks at the Citadel in Charleston on Friday ahead of South Carolina primary. (Connor Turque — For The Washington Post)
When he turned in his best debate performance ever, he was eclipsed by a man who not only doesn’t have the match of pro-family rhetoric and record that Santorum does, but has somehow managed to turn allegations he once sought an open marriage into a plus.

So why is the man in the sweater vest smiling? I have no idea, but he is, and at an event at the Citadel on Friday night, he was either a person at peace with any outcome or a better actor than he’s been given credit for.

At a Friday night event where he was honored with the “Patriot Award” by the Citadel Republican Society, a group chock-a-block with Santorum stalwarts, he said, “We’re very excited about tomorrow; just in the last 48 hours I have seen a palpable change out there.’’

Pollsters have, too, and the momentum they’ve recorded seems to be headed Newt Gingrich’s way. But that is not Santorum’s sense of the race, he says: “Earlier in the week, it wasn’t feeling exactly like I wanted it to feel. It was good, but I didn’t feel like we were surging.”

Then came Thursday night’s debate, where the consensus among commentators was that he 1) nailed it, but in an outing that was 2) over almost before it started, with the sound bite of the night coming in response to the first question to Gingrich, about his ex-wife Marianne Gingrich’s insistence that he wanted her to share him with his now-wife, Callista.

(Gingrich, of course, got an everybody-on-their-feet ovation when he told CNN moderator John King, “I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like this.” Raising the issue, he thundered, “is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine,’’ and is “destructive, vicious, negative.”)

The way Santorum looks at this, though, is that after a good night at the debate — a “great night,” someone in the Citadel crowd shouts — he’s one of three possibles left standing, along with Gingrich and Mitt Romney.

His closing pitch to South Carolina Republicans is that, like Goldilocks, they should realize that Romney is “just a little too cool,’’ Newt is “too hot,’’ and he, in this analogy, is the bowl of porridge that’s just right.

Just take a look at my fashion statement, he told the cadets and their families and supporters, drawing attention to his now-trademark sweater vest. “It fits the kind of candidate I’m trying to communicate.’’

How so? In this favorite Santorum scenario, the South Carolina voter is like “a young lady walking into a dance hall” — not clear in what century this one is set — and at first, she’s “not looking for the guy in the sweater vest; he’s probably got a pocket protector. But he’s the guy you can trust — and at the end of the evening, after you’ve had your spins with ‘too hot’ and ‘too cold,’ I’m someone Mom and Dad are gonna like.”


Roecker Melick, a cadet at the Citadel, supports Rick Santorum in the GOP contest. (Connor Turque - For The Washington Post)
He closed the evening, as he has at least as far back as his losing Senate race in ’06, with an extended disquisition on the threat posed by Iran.

If the candidate isn’t acknowledging any frustration, some of his supporters are. Citadel cadet Carl Peter, a 19-year-old from Sumter, S.C., said, “I’m frustrated that people can support Mitt Romney and the other candidates when Rick Santorum is the only candidate that sticks to his word.” Peter said he found it particularly impressive that at Thursday’s debate, Santorum “had the guts to call out Mitt Romney” and question his opposition to abortion rights.

Other Santorum fans, though, said they were still reveling in the belated news that Santorum had won Iowa outright. “That’s amazing we pulled that out,’’ said Roecker Melick, 19, of Birmingham, Ala. If his first choice doesn’t prevail, though, Melick said, his Plan B is Gingrich. “He has a questionable personal life,’’ he allowed, in answer to a friend who was arguing that that was disqualifying. “But who knows more about Washington?”

By  |  11:36 AM ET, 01/21/2012

 
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