Rick Santorum may never be the presidential contender that folks would prefer to drink a beer with. But he is clearly the guy that Republican voters would prefer to drink a warm glass of milk with. That just may be enough.
Santorum, the former Pennsylvania Senator with a conservative streak that makes Nicolas Sarkozy appear liberal, has taken his quixotic bid for the Oval Office to places few had ever imagined possible. Two months ago, Santorum was driving a pickup truck around rural Iowa glad-handing Evangelical voters while his cash-strapped campaign was largely viewed as an afterthought. Insiders and talking heads dismissed Santorum as an ultra-right carnival attraction who could never mount a sustainable campaign against Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich--all high-profile politicians with deeper pockets and more name recognition. But Santorum kept plugging and pulled off an improbable, razor-thin victory over Romney in Iowa.
After representative outings in Florida, South Carolina, and elsewhere, Santorum recently blindsided Romney by winning Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado in the same night. Suddenly, Romney's uncontested march to the Republican nomination didn't seem as likely. Romney outspent Santorum forty to one in those three states. Digest that for a moment. Forty to one. That's the equivalent of the Newark Bears sweeping the New York Yankees in a playoff series. Its simply inconceivable.
Santorum is currently favored to win the Michigan primary on February 28th. That would conceivably give him a bucket of momentum heading into Super Tuesday on March 6th, where he stands a solid chance of picking up gigantic prizes like Ohio, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Somewhere in one of the six palaces he currently owns, Mitt Romney is quivering in his custom-made imported linen pants and baby sealskin loafers.
There are two primary factors behind the rise of Santorum. Perhaps the most compelling reason behind his rise to prominence isn't who he is, but who he isn't.
Liberals and moderates alike have often likened Santorum's social values to be draconian at best, and downright Strom Thurman-esque at worst. No candidate more staunchly opposes gay rights, contraception, or a women's right to chose than Santorum. However, he does not veil his positions behind a mess of euphemisms, rhetoric, and politician's answers. Santorum appears honest and forthright in what he says--and this is in stark contrast to Romney, who looks more and more like an empty suit with each passing day.
As such, Republican voters who don't share Santorum's far-right positions on social issues but want a fiscally conservative, pro-military candidate find themselves holding their nose and voting for Santorum because Romney has become toxic. Rick Santorum gives voters the image of a guy who will not only have a glass of milk with you, but he'll cook you pancakes and do the dishes before closing the meal with a reading from the book of Proverbs. Romney, however, gives voters the impression that he won't eat in restaurants that don't serve Perrier and seared fois gras. Conservatives are sending a clear message that they need a viable anti-Romney; perhaps, somewhat by default, they've found it in Santorum.
This leads me to the second reason behind the Santorum surge. Despite nearly infinite financial resources due to the advent of super PACS and the fact that he's filthy stinking rich, Romney can't find a staffer on this planet who can make him look appealing to voters. His appeal has become so lukewarm that he probably needs to rescue some puppies from a burning animal shelter in order to re-energize his base. Sounds like something that can easily be staged, doesn't it?
There are political consultants out there who claim they can get a ham sandwich elected to public office. Yet there isn't a genius out there who is willing to craft an effective message that can make Romney look either competent or likeable. Instead, voters see a waffling, disconnected corporate raider who could care less about the plight of the blue-collar Evangelical voters who comprise the heart and soul of the Republican base. Santorum, however, paints himself as a humble underdog who really cares about spreading his message of family values to the masses. Whether or not he's actually that type of person should be the subject of a future article.
What does all this mean? In the short run, more Santorum victories would mean Romney is not going to saunter into the nomination and begin his assault on Obama directly anytime soon. Santorum, as repugnant as the notion would seem to him, has become a darling to Democrats who want to see the Republican primary become a sloppy, drawn out, four-way death match that lasts through the dog days of summer.
In the long run, this could make things very hairy for Republican kingmakers. According to published reports, the national Republican establishment finds both Romney and Santorum as appealing as a stomach virus because of their perceived vulnerability in the general election. Both men--as well as Gingrich and Ron Paul--are polling lower than President Obama, according to Quinnipiac University's latest data. This could lead to an unprecedented brokered convention where literally any Republican with a pulse--including or excluding the current candidates--could end up as the party's standard-bearer in November. It's something that is without precedent in the modern era of politics.
...Anyone ready to get on the "Draft Fred Thompson" bandwagon yet?