Can Rick Santorum become more than ‘not Romney’?

Dan Balz
Chief correspondent February 14, 2012

This is Rick Santorum’s week — in the polls, that is. It was his week last week, too, at least on Tuesday night, when he won Republican presidential primary contests in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado. He got no guaranteed delegates, but those victories surely turned him into the latest matinee idol of conservatives and gave him a tremendous boost in the polls.

Four new national polls — by Gallup, the Pew Research Center, CBS News-New York Times and CNN — now show Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, in a statistical tie with Mitt Romney. He has also surged in Michigan, where the Feb. 28 primary looms as the next big showdown on the Republican calendar. A Santorum victory there would truly shake the foundations of the Romney campaign.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent. View Archive

Romney had two victories last week. He narrowly won the Maine caucuses. He also won a meaningless straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, though “meaningless” does not mean it did not receive undue attention. No event this year, apparently, is unworthy of attention or interpretation.

Whatever boost those events could give Romney did not translate into the latest polling numbers, which are strikingly different from the data of a week ago. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Feb. 6 showed the former Massachusetts governor at 38 percent support among registered voters and with a healthy lead over his rivals: He was 14 points ahead of Newt Gingrich, 20 points up on Santorum and 24 points better than Ron Paul. That survey was started just after Romney’s big victory in Florida and concluded on the day he was winning the Nevada caucuses.

Comparing one organization’s poll with another group’s poll a week later can be tricky. But this week’s polls are remarkably consistent in charting the changed race for the GOP nomination. Gallup has Romney at 32 percent and Santorum at 30 percent; Pew shows Santorum at 30 percent and Romney at 28 percent;CBS-New York Times puts Santorum at 30 percent and Romney at 27 percent; and CNN finds Santorum at 34 percent to Romney’s 32 percent.

Watching the polls in the Republican race has become a truly dizzying experience; the fluctuations are unlike anything in previous contests. If people hadn’t seen this movie before, they might be tempted to make more of it than it deserves. Volatility in the Republican electorate has become the second most consistent part of the narrative about the GOP race, behind only the questions about whether Romney can consolidate the party’s base.

But is Santorum’s strength as a candidate different from that of, say, Gingrich, or Rick Perry, or Herman Cain, or Michele Bachmann, or anyone else who at one time or another led the race or shared the lead with Romney? That is a question that will be answered over the next few weeks.

It’s safe to say that most Republican voters know very little about Santorum, other than what they have seen of him in debates or on the campaign trail. He is, for now, a place-holder for dissatisfaction with Romney. That is probably not enough to win the Republican nomination.

In the coming weeks, Santorum’s record in Congress, his writings, his past interviews — everything — will be dissected as never before. Romney’s campaign and the super PAC backing him will make certain of that, as will the media. Gingrich will use the debates to draw his own distinctions with Santorum.

That process will begin to answer the question of just who Santorum is. Is his record dotted with inconsistencies that undercut his claim to be the real conservative, as Romney has suggested? Is he a Washington insider to Romney’s outsider, or is he more in tune with the insurgent wing of his party battling an establishment that favors Romney? Are his positions so conservative as to make him a problematic choice in a general election?

Santorum has obvious appeal to those parts of the party that have been most resistant to Romney: social conservatives, evangelicals, tea party activists, Republicans without college degrees. His roots in western Pennsylvania and his positions on social issues give him a political persona that is sharply different from Romney’s. He carries less baggage than Gingrich.

But does all that engender genuine affection for Santorum or merely a new iteration of the lack of love for Romney? Santorum’s challenge now is to translate interest in his candidacy into lasting support. None of those who have gone before him as the non-Romney have scaled that wall. Through self-inflicted wounds or attacks from Romney, they have fallen away, though it may be too soon to count Gingrich out a third time.

Santorum must prove that he’s got what they lacked. He says he would make a better nominee than Romney to run against President Obama, arguing that he would present a clearer contrast with the president. That’s almost certainly true. It’s also likely that he would have a better chance of energizing the conservative base than Romney — but would he sell well to independents and suburban women?

His last race in Pennsylvania, which he lost by 18 points, cannot be explained away simply by saying it was a bad year for Republicans. Over the years, Pennsylvania has had a history of competitive statewide elections. Santorum’s performance in 2006 was outside that norm.

Those are considerations that Republican voters will have to weigh as they head toward primaries in Arizona and Michigan in two weeks and then the round of contests on Super Tuesday, March 6.

It must be clear by now that there are no perfect choices and few realistic options for those who talk of drawing someone else into the contest. Republicans should be braced for more volatility.

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