JACKSON, Mich.— Rick Santorum is a much braver man than Mitt Romney. We know this because Rick Santorum says so. When he finishes a speech—one that’s at least twice or three times as long as Romney’s—he gives his audience an opening for questions.
“I always like to take a few questions,” said Santorum on Sunday, speaking at a church in Davison, Mich., to a crowd that occupied every carpeted inch of the small room’s balcony and stairs. “Unlike a lot of other candidates—I want to hear what you have to say. Not just what I have to say. And by the way, I don’t read from a script!”
“I don’t preselect the audience.”
More applause. “I don’t read from the teleprompter!”
Loud, knowing, conspiratorial applause.
“Of course, all those things scare the living daylights out of the Washington, D.C., establishment. They want it to be scripted. They want to write the script!”
Santorum had just slapped Romney, with a special bonus drop kick of Barack Obama. (You’re not a 2012 Republican candidate if you don’t make a teleprompter joke—or five.) The risks, at this speech, were extraordinarily low. The first question from the crowd was: “Gas prices, Rick. What’ll you do about ‘em?” The second was about what he’d do to end abortion, “the genocide of the next generation.” Santorum whacked the softballs into the ionosphere, and every reporter in the room had time to ponder: Yeah, why doesn’t Romney do this? A Romney aide who’d been tracking Santorum tried to convince me that the former senator was weakening himself with his lecture-length events—why, as many as 10 percent of voters left before he was done! But there’s no actual evidence that this hurts Santorum.
If Mitt Romney loses the Michigan primary, he will face a crisis of Dunkirkian proportions, with questions about which campaign staffers he’s about to sack, and new calls for the Mitch Daniels Charisma Machine to come in and save the party. If Romney wins here, just by a little, it’ll be the same crisis, with slightly fewer explosions. A narrow win would mean that Romney effectively lost to Santorum on Election Day and tumbled over the goal line, clutching a box of absentee votes between bandaged arms.
Neither of these situations is ideal, for either Romney or Santorum. At a glance, the 2012 Republican primary looks a lot like the 2008 Democratic race. But that campaign pitted a well-liked candidate who would be the first African-American president against a well-like candidate who would have been the first female president. Neither ran a particularly negative campaign. Go and check out the most brutal ad that Obama aired against Hillary. He criticized her because the New York Times, “her hometown paper,” said she was “taking the low road.” That was it. With precious little ideological or policy space between them, the candidates waged war over whether the Democrats should nominates a figure of hope or a pragmatist.
Now, look back at Romney-Santorum. When Santorum brags about his audacity, he’s copying every insurgent who’s ever put his name on the ballot. But Santorum actually means it. He no longer picks culture war fights, the way he did when he lost his Senate seat. He picks contrast fights, over everything. The Santorum Theory of 2012 is this: Voters have figured Barack Obama out and will reward a conservative and punish a moderate.
In Davison and elsewhere, Santorum’s Exhibit A for the theory is the health care law. It’s unpopular. It’s “the No. 1 issue.” A new swing state poll in USA Today proves that voters hate it. “Why would the people of Michigan,” he asked, “put up someone who won’t make the fundamental argument at the core of this election, and give that issue away?” What about a secondary issue, climate change? A total scam, Santorum said, and Romney fell for it. “I didn’t buy the game that the left was playing,” he said, “to try and get more money from people so they could take more power.”
At another weekend event, in Traverse City, Santorum lampooned the media for asking why the most prominent Catholic in Republican politics once “wanted to puke” when he heard John F. Kennedy give his 1960 religion speech. Santorum explained: “Total separation” of church and state made him sick. “That’s not America,” he said. “That’s France!”
Perhaps some front-running candidate could take this, flip it, warn voters of danger up ahead. Mitt Romney is not that candidate. Romney’s ads in Michigan, and his Super PAC’s ads, attack Santorum for undue fealty to the Tea Party. A radio spot that loops on Detroit-area conservative talk radio ticks off ways that Santorum spent money—the bridge to nowhere!—and adds “ka-ching” cash register sound effects. When the GOP destroyed the Democrats in 2010, voters told exit pollsters that they wanted the new Congress to cut the deficit and slash taxes. Surely, they’ll do it again! You win elections when you convince voters you’ll act fast on the stuff that makes them angry, and you blot out the rest of the ideological noise.
That’s not how Republicans see it anymore. In Traverse City, a Santorum voter who’d gone for Romney last time explained his conversion by blaming the media. In 2008, he said, the fourth estate never vetted Barack Obama and never asked hard questions about Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers. He would never have voted for Romney if he knew he decreed a universal health care mandate in Massachusetts. The media let him down. Now that he knew better, he could vote for Santorum and expose Obama for what he was.
If a Republican establishment still exists, this is its nightmare. The front-runner who wants to play moderate if he wins—the guy who said today that he refuses to “set my hair on fire” and go brutal on Obama—isn’t reacting well to pressure. He looks weaker, and polls weaker, than he has for months. The voters who picked him in Michigan four years ago can explain it. They were told that a “moderate” candidate, who didn’t offend people, would win. He didn’t win. Now they want revenge. At his Davison rally, one voter put this to Santorum in one short question.
“Unlike John McCain, will you go after Obama without treating him with kid gloves?”
Santorum grinned at that one. “What do you think?”