Rick Santorum and the Huckabee trap

Dan Balz
Chief correspondent January 9, 2012

No one has campaigned harder in New Hampshire this past week than Rick Santorum. But has the Republican former senator from Pennsylvania fallen into the same trap that ensnared Mike Huckabee four years ago?

There is something alluring about New Hampshire and its storied presidential primary. The gravitational pull of the state’s history, its tradition and the clutch of media that descend on the state during primary week can be irresistible, particularly to a dark-horse candidate who springs a surprise in Iowa.

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

But there is also the cruel reality that, for Santorum, South Carolina looms as a more crucial test for his candidacy. In New Hampshire, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is the clear favorite to win. The electorate here includes a smaller percentage of social and religious conservatives who were key to Santorum’s success in Iowa.

Would Santorum have been better off spending the bulk of his time since Iowa burrowing into South Carolina rather than New Hampshire? Four years ago, Huckabee won Iowa and was faced with a decision similar to the one Santorum confronted. The former Arkansas governor opted to make a play for New Hampshire (and later Michigan) rather than heading south to plant a flag in South Carolina. His reward? He finished a distant third, with just 11 percent of the vote.

When the Palmetto State voted a few weeks later, Huckabee narrowly lost to Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), effectively ending his hopes of winning the GOP nomination. Former senator Fred Thompson (Tenn.), who had parked in South Carolina after Iowa and received enough votes there to destroy Huckabee’s chances of beating McCain, also hurt him.

It’s impossible to say whether the outcome would have been different had Huckabee spent more time in South Carolina. But the 11 percent he received in New Hampshire hardly provided the kind of springboard he needed, and the time he spent here and later in Michigan cost him precious days on the ground in South Carolina.

Santorum now faces the same issue. He rolled into New Hampshire last week with enthusiasm and confidence. His showing in Iowa, which far exceeded any expectations, made him the candidate in the spotlight, the Republican with the potential to grab the coveted designation as the conservative alternative to Romney.

Two things happened. His hopes of dominating the news coverage after Iowa hit a speed bump when Romney rolled out an endorsement from McCain. The McCain-Romney show turned out to be as compelling as the Santorum-on-a-roll story.

That, however, was a momentary problem and one out of Santorum’s control. More important was the absence of a clear message for the New Hampshire voters. Santorum has been diligent about treating the state’s voters with respect. His town hall meetings have been textbook examples of a candidate submitting himself to question after question after question, but they’ve made it more difficult for Santorum to deliver a singular message — especially because he is not spending money on television ads.

The best speech of Santorum’s campaign came on the night of the Iowa caucuses, a speech that eclipsed Romney’s by a considerable margin. Santorum took advantage of being in the limelight that night. But he has struggled to replicate that in New Hampshire. The whole of his message one day last week was a confrontation with a student over same-sex marriage.

Ed Rollins, who was Huckabee’s campaign manager in 2008, says Santorum is following Huckabee’s pattern, to his possible detriment. “He is making the same mistake,” Rollins said in an e-mail Monday morning. “We got caught up in the afterglow of the Iowa victory.”

Rollins went on to say that Huckabee made an even bigger mistake by campaigning hard in Michigan after New Hampshire, rather than going straight to South Carolina. But he noted that Huckabee had a sizable campaign organization in New Hampshire, which made it difficult for the candidate not to campaign here.

“It wasn’t as big as Romney’s today, but bigger than anyone else this time but Huntsman and Romney,” Rollins said. “We really had to go. We also felt we were gaining momentum there. Michigan was the fool’s gold.”

Former senator John E. Sununu (N.H.) said Monday that he happened to talk to Santorum right after the former Pennsylvania senator’s near-victory in Iowa. Santorum told him there was some discussion in his operation about where to spend his time. Sununu said successful candidates can’t cherry-pick their way to the nomination. He believes Santorum needed to come to New Hampshire to make his case.

Fergus Cullen, a former New Hampshire Republican Party chairman, called Santorum’s decision “ill-advised.” By his analysis, the candidate’s performance in Iowa earned him a free pass to South Carolina.

Cullen said the risk for Santorum now is the possibility of finishing behind Newt Gingrich here Tuesday after making an all-out effort. He says the former senator would have been wiser to play down expectations in New Hampshire and try to set himself up for South Carolina.

Santorum senior adviser John Brabender said what to do about New Hampshire was not the subject of any real debate.

“We never gave serious discussion to skipping New Hampshire,” he wrote in an e-mail. “We felt that would be a disaster. Instead, our main discussion was whether or not to spend real resources in New Hampshire. In the end we decided not to spend the money, and instead send it to South Carolina.”

Brabender, who was part of Rudolph Giuliani’s 2008 campaign and learned the consequences of trying to skip some of the early states, explained the thinking behind the decision.

“We knew Romney would be remarkably strong in New Hampshire, and our goal was never to compete with him,” he said. Nor, he added, was there any need to worry about competing with Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) here.

“End of the day, we felt that if we skipped New Hampshire we would be out of the national discussion for a week, and that this would greatly hurt our fundraising momentum, and hurt us in the polls in South Carolina,” Brabender said. “Finishing at 1 percent tied with [Texas Gov. Rick] Perry in New Hampshire would have killed all momentum. We feel we now can move into South Carolina with plenty of resources to compete, and still make the claim we are the best conservative to become the alternate to Romney.”

To hedge his bets, Santorum flew to South Carolina after Sunday’s debate here. But he was back in New Hampshire on Monday morning for a full day of campaigning.

Shortly before the Iowa caucuses, Santorum did an interview with two of my Post colleagues, Karen Tumulty and Roz Helderman. Asked about his strategy for New Hampshire, Santorum was confident that he could appeal to Granite State voters in ways Huckabee could not.

“Rick Santorum is from the Northeast,” he said. “I’m from Pennsylvania, not from Texas. With all due respect to Mike [Huckabee], I’m not from Arkansas. I’m an ethnic Catholic from a steel town. We have 20-plus state legislators from New Hampshire who have endorsed us. You go up to our office in Bedford right now, and it’s jampacked with volunteers making phone calls and it has been for weeks. Just like I think what happened here in Iowa. That little spark, and people will start to say, ‘Yeah, he is the alternative.’ ”

That’s what he hopes he will get Tuesday, enough of a spark to convince conservatives that he is their best hope to stop Romney. He will be living with the consequences as the campaign moves to South Carolina on Wednesday morning.

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