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The Santorum Boomlet

A month ago, even two weeks ago, you could get a laugh at a cocktail party suggesting that there was still time for former Sen. Rick Santorum to become the “flavor of the month” in the GOP primary. Not anymore.

Congresswoman Michele Bachmann stumbled over the HPV vaccine. Gov. Rick Perry stumbled over the English language. Herman Cain stumbled over everything. Each rose in the polls, garnered a great deal of media attention, and withered from the harsh light. But, Santorum? The guy lost to Sen. Robert Casey by 18 points, the largest margin of defeat for any incumbent senator in 2006.

Newt Gingrich’s collapse in the polls was different from the others. His inability or unwillingness to respond to a series of negative attack ads on Iowa television was partly high-minded wishfulness that his competitors would abide by the 11th Commandment not to speak ill of a fellow Republican or, failing that, the Iowa voters would reject negative ads. But, the other candidates attacked and the Iowa voters took the bait. The other reason Gingrich did not respond: A lack of campaign cash. When you are getting pummeled in television ads, you need to respond with television ads, and the Gingrich campaign didn’t have the money to do so.

We will know Tuesday night what the voters in Iowa think. Actually, that is not exactly right. We will know what some, very few, voters in Iowa think. And, we will know who had an effective campaign organization on the ground: Who lined up precinct captains and who gave them effective talking points to win over voters at the caucuses? There may be some surprises, there may not, but one thing is already becoming obvious: The “day after” Iowa will look different this year from previous years.

First, the Gingrich, Santorum and Bachmann campaigns have survived this far on very little cash. Only a complete flameout, of the kind that appears destined for Bachmann, will cause anyone to leave the race.

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Second, Gingrich will certainly not drop out until the next debate. His rise in the polls in late November and early December had nothing to do with ad buys or campaign mailings. It was entirely the result of a series of effective debate performances and there is little reason to think he will have lost his debating touch in the new year.

Third, it is pretty clear that Gov. Rick Perry will emerge from Tuesday with some cash-on-hand. He can go into South Carolina and Florida and buy television ads while other candidates are scrambling for campaign cash. Only if Perry is crushed at the caucuses will he need to re-evaluate his campaign. And, while he will never be a debate star, his last couple of outings have not been as bad as expected: The bar has been set pretty low, of course, but that only makes it easier for him to exceed expectations with voters who have not yet paid much attention to the race in states beyond Iowa and New Hampshire.

Fourth, if Santorum does as well as expected, you can expect him to become the target of increased scrutiny by both the press and his competitors and it is far from clear that he will stand up well to that barrage. As Mike Newall wrote about Santorum in a 2005 Philadelphia City Paper profile that I highly recommend: “What's fascinating about the book [Santorum’s It Takes a Family] — and what's arguably most intriguing about Santorum — is his sanctimonious, almost angry belief that he is absolutely, undeniably right.” This character trait might appear to many centrist voters as a charcter flaw, even if it does not so appear to conservative evangelicals in rural Iowa where sanctimony from the pulpit is part and parcel of their weekly routine. That same evangelical base of support could carry him in South Carolina. It might allow him, like Mike Huckabee, to be the last man standing to challenge the eventual nominee. But, I do not see how Santorum can become the nominee.

If the GOP does not want Mitt Romney to be their nominee, and it is likely about 75% of Iowans will register that fact on Tuesday, and national polls have pegged the former Massachusetts Governor around 30 percent as well, then they need to throw their support behind either Perry or Gingrich. Only those two candidates will have something in the bag the day after the Iowa caucuses: cash for Perry and a forthcoming debate for Gingrich. And both Gingrich and Perry should be as keen on roughing up Romney as roughing up each other. This was the biggest mistake the various conservative candidates made in Iowa, throwing all their attacks at each other and leaving Romney unscathed. The way to appear as the conservative alternative to Romney is to take him on directly.

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