Kathleen Parker
Opinion writer January 6, 2012

Iowa front-runners Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have a little problem. Both are too nice to be mean to each other.

Who can throw the first punch in a tight race growing tighter?

Kathleen Parker writes a twice-weekly column on politics and culture. She received the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary In 2010. View Archive

This is why God made Newt Gingrich. The formerly self-anointed “nice guy,” the one who wasn’t going to go negative, has flip-flopped on protocol. Insisting that he lost Iowa to these lesser mortals because of Romney’s negative ads, he has declared that he’ll no longer make nice.

Shocking. To think that Gingrich, after being denied voter confidence in the caucuses, would decide to play steamroller. One can imagine his late-night wrestling matches, tossing beneath the weight of his conscience, turning to his muse:

“Callista, you know how much I hate to do this, but I owe it to the country to destroy that helmet-headed goody two-shoes. Oh, wait, no, come on, you know what I mean.”

There is method to Gingrich’s madness. In fact, though Romney spent more on ads, the most damaging ones for Gingrich came from Ron Paul’s campaign, which accused the former speaker of serial hypocrisy. But Gingrich has focused his anger and bitterness on the candidate he deems the greatest threat to his own candidacy. The battle for votes between Santorum and Romney, neither of whom wants to insult the other, most likely will be fought on the front lines of Gingrich’s own internal war.

Whether Santorum is a real threat to Romney, meanwhile, is a matter of small debate. The obvious answer is: Not really. Unquestionably Santorum appeals to social conservatives who don’t have to guess at his sincerity. No one on the planet this side of the pope has walked the walk as Santorum has. He is in the Vatican’s vernacular res ipsa loquitur (the thing speaks for itself). But in a general election, his appeal weakens.

Even in Iowa, where caucus-goers tied Santorum with Romney, polls show that voters believe Romney has a better chance of winning the national election. Romney continues to lead by a healthy margin in New Hampshire. A new WMUR/University of New Hampshire poll found that 44 percent of those surveyed said they most likely would vote for Romney.

Santorum’s sudden rise as a potential favorite is sudden only if you weren’t watching Iowa the past year or so. The former senator from Pennsylvania has been all but carpooling as he visited all 99 counties. For his trouble, he was rewarded. But doing well among conservative, white Christians does not a national trend portend.

Despite his many fine qualities as a devout and devoted family man, and no one disputes his constancy in this realm, Santorum’s strengths are his weaknesses when it comes to the nation’s top job. He may be the Catholic’s Catholic, but the crucial issue this election year is business, not abortion. Though an effective senator — Santorum was instrumental in welfare reform even as he was a champion of the poor — he has mostly served in government. And though he touts his worker heritage, especially his immigrant grandfather who worked in the coal mines and his own childhood in Pennsylvania’s manufacturing belt, Santorum hasn’t any executive experience to compare with Romney’s.

People who worked with Santorum in Washington have marveled at his new maturity. Gone is the sometimes-arrogant Santorum, though he remains bellicose at times, promising, for instance, to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. Perhaps humbled by defeat and personal loss, he is today a kinder, gentler version of his earlier political incarnation. He also has suffered some of the cruelest attacks of anyone in the blood sport of politics, some so vile that they don’t merit repetition here. Suffice to say, those who have attacked him personally couldn’t hold up Santorum’s socks in a contest of personal honor.

Nevertheless, the primary focus of the Republican Party is to nominate someone who can defeat President Obama. Pennsylvania is crucial to Obama’s reelection, and there’s no ignoring that Santorum lost his Senate seat in 2006 in his home state by a huge margin — 17 points. At the moment, some pollsters’ hypothetical matchups show Obama tied or trailing Romney.

Santorum clearly has an important national role to play, especially in the debate about who we are, but Romney remains the GOP’s best bet.

kathleenparker@washpost.com