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[HumanEvents.com]

A big day dawns for the dark-horse conservative candidate.

by John Hayward

February 07, 2012

Tuesday could be Rick Santorum’s big day – his chance to break back into the news cycle with some strong primary performances, and make the case that he’s a better choice than Newt Gingrich for those seeking an alternative to Mitt Romney.

On the national level, it’s really still a fairly close race.  An ABC News / Washington Post poll concluded on the eve of this weekend’s Nevada caucuses had Romney in the lead with 38 percent support, but Gingrich, Santorum, and Ron Paul were fairly close together with 24, 18, and 14 percent, respectively.  Very few delegates have been assigned by the primaries and caucuses held thus far.  There is still plenty of time for the race to change.

It’s the local polling that makes Tuesday exciting for the Santorum campaign.  Missouri is holding a “just for show” meaningless primary ahead of its March caucuses, but Santorum is looking very good there.  He’s just a hair behind Gingrich, and a bit ahead of Romney, but Gingrich didn’t qualify for the primary, so Santorum has a great opening to win over those march Missouri caucus-goers.

As for the other two Tuesday contests, recent PPP polling assembled at RealClearPolitics show Santorum well ahead of Gingrich in Colorado.  The latest survey, taken February 4, had it Romney 40, Santorum 26, Gingrich 18, Paul 12.

And as for Minnesota, well… Santorum is actually winning there.  He’s in the lead with 29 percent support, followed by Romney with 27, Gingrich 22, and Paul 19.

The Romney campaign can read polls with the best of them, and as CNN reports, they’re already throwing flak at the Santorum torpedo bomber screaming in low over the electoral waves:

A major element of Santorum’s campaign has been right-wing abhorrence of federal health care reform under President Barack Obama.

In particular, the former Pennsylvania senator accuses Romney of having backed a plan in Massachusetts similar to the federal program that Romney now pledges to repeal if elected president.

The Romney campaign issued a statement Monday that took on the constant attack line by Santorum, citing media articles and “fact-check” reports that labeled some of Santorum’s claims as false.

It cited reports on FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.com in recent weeks that rated as “not true” or “mostly false” the statements by Santorum that the Massachusetts health care law passed while Romney was governor created a government-run system.

The Gingrich campaign can read polls, too, which may account for the extremely combative tone Gingrich took against Romney in his post-Nevada press conference.  It had the feel of an audition for retaining the role of Alpha Not-Romney.

Santorum appeared on Fox News Sunday to look at the week ahead, and in addition to dropping some welcome news that his 3-year-old daughter Bella is “doing just great,” he was both realistic about his performance to date, and optimistic about the road ahead.  Asked how he would turn the race around, Santorum replied:

Well, I think you wait for Tuesday. I mean, the first five states were sort of cast in stone. They were the five states. The last time, they are the states that, you know, Governor Mitt Romney and Congressman Paul who ran four years ago had an advantage because they have spent a lot of time and money not just in this year’s campaign but for the last four years in working in those states.

Now, we’re getting to the states where people don’t have the natural advantage, don’t have the time commitment, the staff commitment to really build out an organization like they did in these first five. I think we’re going to do very well here in Minnesota. I think we’re going to do very well in Colorado, and we’ve got a one-on- one match up against Mitt Romney in Missouri, while there’s no delegates, it is a key state, it is a primary. And we think we can do exceptionally well in the state of Missouri.

So, we got three states coming up on Tuesday. I think we’re going to show that this race is moving again in a very different direction.

Santorum went on to insist that Tuesday would be an important opportunity, but not “make or break” for him.  He might be underestimating the importance of the moment, because Gingrich’s strategy is to get through a tough February and stage a big comeback in March, and this is Santorum’s big chance to catch the eye of those March voters.

Santorum has a few significant advantages over Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, beginning with the fact that he is not Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich.  He doesn’t have their baggage, and he hasn’t taken any deep wounds in the 2012 primary.  The low turnout in the Nevada caucuses has been taken by some observers to indicate that voters are growing weary of the negative-campaign cage match between Romney and Gingrich.  Santorum could be a refreshingly cheerful sight for those weary eyes.

He’s got a firm grasp of how to run against both Romney and Gingrich, describing the former as “pretty much a uni-dimensional candidate” who just “talks about being the CEO, being the businessman,” while questioning the conservative authenticity and stability of Gingrich.  From a tactical standpoint, given the heavily cratered landscape from all those Romney and Gingrich negative ads, Santorum has a relatively easy task when it comes to criticizing both of his leading opponents at once.

As pointed out in his Fox News Sunday interview, Santorum is also the only GOP candidate to poll ahead of President Obama in the latest Rasmussen survey.  This cuts deep into Romney’s “electability” argument, which has been cited as a top concern by primary voters.  Those voters might find themselves thinking the affable Santorum would be harder for Team Obama to demonize than Mitt “I Don’t Care About the Very Poor” Romney, or the Gingrich Who Stole Christmas.  (Don’t worry, folks, Team Obama will manage to turn Santorum into the Devil, if he’s the nominee… but they might feel obliged to go about it in a way that offends independent voters who find Santorum a solid, personally likable candidate.)

Santorum also appears to be winning a lot of Tea Party support away from Gingrich in the next couple of primary races.  The Tea Party means energy.  They won’t just vote for you – they’ll work for you.

One other quality of Santorum’s that might prove appealing to Republican primary voters is his ability to learn and improve.  He’s gotten visibly better on the stump, and in debates, as the primary contest wears on, while Romney and Gingrich show signs of wearying.  For example, here are his remarks on Fox News about the Obama Administration’s decision to require Catholic institutions to offer contraception as part of their health care coverage:

The Catholic Church specifically teaches that birth control pills, as well the morning-after pill which is not just a birth control pill but what clearly causes abortions, as well as sterilization, which is something that the church specifically teaches against. Here you have a situation where you have this tricky play, the government says that they can give you right. They’ll give you the right to health care. Be careful, because then they can tell you how to exercise that right against your First Amendment rights, against you ability to practice your faith.

And even worse, we saw in the case of the Army, where the head of the chaplain of the Army wanted to issue a letter that was issued last week and all the other Catholic churches in this country, and the Army and Obama administration said they couldn’t even issue a letter to complain about the Obama administration’s plan on this policy.

So, now, not only violating the freedom of religion, now the freedom of speech, this is the problem when government tells you that they can give you things. They can take it away. But even worse, they can tell you how they’re going to exercise this new right that they’ve given you, consistent with their values instead of the values guaranteed in our Constitution.

That’s well-reasoned, incisive, and very conscious of the Big Picture.  It captures the unease Republican and independent voters feel about our ever-expanding super-government, and it reassures them Santorum understands the ideological terrain he is fighting on.  This alleviates fears of both shrinking during debates with Obama, and “growing” in a liberal direction, once Santorum reaches the Oval Office.

How many GOP primary handicappers would have guessed, at the outset, that Santorum would be one of the final four candidates, and poised to have perhaps his best week yet?  Primary voters worried about an uphill battle against Obama and the media machine may find a lot to like in that comeback story, too.


John Hayward is a staff writer for HUMAN EVENTS, and author of the recently published Doctor Zero: Year One. Follow him on Twitter: Doc_0. Contact him by email at jhayward@eaglepub.com.

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