Rick Santorum’s path to victory

at 06:00 AM ET, 12/30/2011

Rick Santorum is surging in Iowa, gaining notoriety and drawing the attacks of his opponents.

But can he win?

We here at The Fix remain skeptical. But if there is a path to victory, here’s what it looks like:

The CNN/Opinion Research poll released this week showed Santorum moving into third place in Iowa at 16 percent. But it also included some very interesting numbers when it comes to Christian voters. To wit: frontrunners Mitt Romney and Ron Paul combined for 60 percent of the vote among those who do not describe themselves as “born-again” Christians, but just 34 percent of those who do describe themselves as born-again.
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum waits to be introduced to supporters at a campaign stop at the Button factory restaurant in Muscatine, Iowa, on Thursday. (REUTERS/Rick Wilking)

The fact is that born-again Christians in Iowa – or their close equivalent, evangelical Christians – remain hesitant to embrace the unorthodox candidacy of Paul or the Mormon faith of Romney. And that could leave an opening for someone like Santorum to rally.

To this point, there hasn’t been a singular and obvious third option for this key constituency, which comprises up to half or more of the caucus electorate, depending on whom you believe, and delivered the state to Mike Huckabee in 2008

But that might be changing.

The poll showed Santorum taking 22 percent of born-again Christians, moving him into first place among that group. And if he can make other born-agains believe that he’s the one viable alternative to Romney and Paul, then maybe he can create enough of a rallying effect to unite evangelicals behind his campaign.

“That bandwagon effect at the end can be very powerful in moving numbers dramatically in the last five days,” said former Iowa Republican Party chairman Steve Grubbs, pointing to Huckabee’s win.

There’s also the fact that many voters are receptive to Santorum; other polling has suggested he is a popular second-choice pick.

That suggests voters want to vote for Santorum, but perhaps didn’t see him as someone who could actually win. But if they now see him as a viable option, maybe they move into his camp.

“So it means he still has upside — beyond evangelicals but certainly including them,” said Nick Ryan, the founder of the pro-Santorum super PAC that is current running a quarter-million dollars worth of ads in the Hawkeye State.

The problem, though, is that Santorum is running against two other lower-tier candidates — Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann — who have significant appeal to evangelicals as well. And they aren’t so far behind Santorum (they take 11 percent and 9 percent, respectively) that they wouldn’t also appear to be viable options.

Perry, in particular, has made a pretty overt effort to play up his Christian faith, including running a TV ad that suggested children aren’t allowed to pray in schools and holding a huge gathering of Christians in Houston before launching his campaign.

Perry isn’t going to cede evangelical voters to Santorum without a fight; on Thursday, he launched a new 60-second radio ad hitting the former Pennsylvania senator for his past use of congressional earmarks. And make no mistake: Perry’s campaign has lots of money to toss around these days.

For either Perry or Bachmann, finishing behind Santorum in Iowa likely means the end of their campaign, and that means that Santorum is going to have to work at stealing their supporters.

But at least for now, it appears that he has a genuine opportunity to steal votes from a large pool of voters that doesn’t like either of the two frontrunners.

And given the topsy-turvy nature of the race in Iowa, it isn’t out of the question to think he he could pick up enough votes to win. (Nate Silver pegs that probability at 7 percent.)

Still, it appears very unlikely.

“I don’t think there are enough undecideds to be a big rallying effect among evangelicals,” Grubbs said. “What really stands in the way of him and a big momentum surge is a lack of time.”

Targeting everyone but Romney: Even as Romney appears primed to potentially win Iowa, all of his opponents seem content to attack each other.

On Thursday, Perry spent much of the day going after Santorum, and Gingrich again targeted Paul.

Gingrich, who previously said he would not vote for Paul for president, said Thursday on Fox News that the Texas congressman represents nothing more than a “protest candidate.”

“He’s a serious protest candidate,” Gingrich said. “I think he sincerely believes what he says. But if you look at his total program, I think it is virtually impossible for him to be nominated by the Republican Party.”

The last statement, of course, is what basically every political analyst (including The Fix) thinks as well.

But the fact that he’s focusing on Paul suggests he’s got his eyes on a top-two finish, which might be the best he and the other candidates can hope for at this point.

Must-reads:

More details on Gingrich’s $9-plus million fourth quarter haul: He raised $4.6 million in November but has seen his pace slow since then.

The former Bachmann Iowa chairman who switched to Paul says he wasn’t offered any money.

Paul says there were only eight or 10 sentences of “bad stuff” in his newsletters.

Romney takes a four-point lead in Gallup’s national tracking poll.

Gingrich says he went on a Greek cruise during his campaign to provoke his campaign team. Yeah.

Fixbits:

Ron Paul worries everyone but Romney” — Dan Balz, Washington Post

Divide and conquer” — Ronald Brownstein, National Journal

In GOP field, broad views on executive power” — Charlie Savage, New York Times

Santorum a late bloomer in Iowa” — James Oliphant, Los Angeles Times

Michele Bachmann’s campaign flameout” — Karen Tumulty, Washington Post

 
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