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Friday, February 24, 2012

Right as Rick

(Editor's note: This week, I'm checking in on the candidates by giving each of them one column. To see the latest standings, schedule, and polls, see Sunday's column here.
For the "State of the Newton," click here.

For the "Gospel of Paul," click here.
For Stephen Kurczy and my live blog regarding the Arizona debate, click here.
We'll continue with the state of the Santorum Campaign.

Rick Santorum

Estimated delegate count: CNN-37 (3rd), RCP-44 (2nd), Wikipedia-44 (3rd)
Official delegate count: 4 (4th
(Wins were non-binding)

Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow.

The run is over. Someone has to say it. We have to stop pretending that Rick Santorum, just because he's up on Mitt Romney in national polls, is still in good position to upend Romney. Sure, his position looks strong, but it won't be after he loses both states this Tuesday (he's down big in winner-take-all Arizona and has lost his large lead in Michigan), which means he'll fall even further behind heading into and on Super Tuesday, when the party finally decides to rally around one man. Therefore, the far more interesting question, to me, is not if Rick Santorum can upend Mitt Romney, but rather, why hasn't he been able to put Romney away. Is this not a Republican Primary, and is he not the most Republican in the field?

After all, it seemed like all the variables had lined up for Santorum. He was clearly the most conservative candidate of the contenders. He secured as many victories (Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado, Missouri) as Romney (New Hampshire, Florida, Nevada, Maine). He outlasted the charge of every other anti-Romney candidate to be the last one standing heading into the crucial eight-day, 13-state that begins this Tuesday. And even if he did barely make it through this Tuesday, can he really financially compete with Romney on Super Tuesday's 10-state day? I don't see it. The question remains, then: why has he never really taken off as a frontrunner, despite the lined up variables, or come close to earning the "inevitable" moniker his rival once had and will soon reclaim?

Well, for one, Romney carpet-bombed airwaves with anti-Santorum ads. To be sure, all candidates have become experienced mudslingers, but since Romney and friends outspend all of the other candidates combined, it's Romney's ads that fling the most dirt, saturating TV markets across upcoming states.

Besides the attacks, however, what probably hurts Santorum most is that he has never been seen as a legitimate general election candidate. Take, for example, Santorum's surprising loss to Romney in the Conservative Political Action Conference's straw poll. If there was ever a time for the conservative base of the party to point to a conservative and say, "This is our guy," that was it. Yet, they went with Romney.

It's funny how one event has shown us all we need to know about the 2012 Republican Primary. The Conservative Political Action Conference was a who's who of conservative American titans. Speakers included Bachmann, Cain, Coulter, Jindal, McConnell, Palin, Rubio, Ryan, Walker, and Republican candidates Gingrich, Romney, and Santorum. For three days, conservative throngs packed the conference. It was Santorum territory.

Is what transpired, ultimately, not a microcosm of the entire primary? Paul was marginalized, Gingrich went all anti-establishment, the crowd swooned for Romney, but still Romney won... with under 40 percent support. You'd think such a crowd would have ultimately supported the tried and true conservative, the mainstream Republican, Rick Santorum. Yet, when they held a straw poll near the conference's conclusion, Romney won with 38 percent of the straw poll vote to Santorum's 31. It's clear that conservatives, especially evangelicals, love Santorum, yet they feel it's Romney's turn, as the so-called "electable candidate," to go up against President Obama. A microcosm, indeed.

So we must ask ourselves: is it that Rick Santorum is too conservative? Is he further right than even mainstream conservatives are? How right (or left, for that matter) can a politician go and, though enormously popular with one party and ideology, still be considered a viable leader for the entire nation?

To be sure, Republicans would love to see a man as conservative as Santorum in the White House, but have they, perhaps, ultimately acknowledged that he is unelectable? Do they see a man that terrifies the moderates of the country--especially moderate women--and realize that if the Election of 2012 is as important as they say it is, then they can't risk a far right candidate?

Santorum's positions on abortion, gay rights, and even contraception are already coming into focus. Many of his defenders argue that the capacity of a president can do little to affect those issues--that instead the focus should be on being the CEO of a flailing economy--but voters are notorious for choosing to focus on whatever they want. If the economy is their number one issue, so be it; but it could be abortion, the death penalty, Planned Parenthood, what have you. They choose. Candidates don't.

Simply, Republicans don't want to nominate someone that they believe is likely to lose. Thus, with Santorum being criticized for his ultra-conservatism and faith, the GOP could be worried that they're heading toward an election resembling 1964's Goldwater blowout. He looks great to conservatives and they wish he could be president, but they are honest about his vulnerabilities against the Obama war machine, a candidacy that will spend record amounts of money on a campaign.

If they could only reign Santorum in. It's funny, a big criticism of Mitt Romney is that he's too scripted. With Rick Santorum, he's not scripted enough. He wears his heart on his right sleeve. He's proud of his ideologies and faith. This conviction, alone, would be fine, but it's this all-too-readiness to share his personal, conservative beliefs that make him a dangerous nomination for the Republican Party. It's why his run is over, and it's why he will never be the nominee.

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