The Vest Man Won

What Rick Santorum’s surprise victories mean for Mitt Romney.

Rick Santorum
Can Rick Santorum capitalize on his surprising victories in Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota?

Whitney Curtis/Getty Images

Mitt Romney sure hopes there’s a safety net. His campaign needs it. His cautious and measured run for the presidency has been thrown off stride by Rick Santorum’s victories Tuesday in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri.

The GOP nominating race has become a clash of vampires and zombies. Candidates like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich appear to die only to rise again, while Mitt Romney walks around not quite alive. In the wild narrative authored by cranky voters (who must not have heard the smart people who declared the race over months ago), the newest plot line is the battle between Rick Santorum, a candidate defined by his conviction, and Mitt Romney, one who has been defined by his lack of same.

Santorum’s win was a surprise, but in a way the story is not new. If there has been a constant in the Republican race, it has been that Mitt Romney is a sickly front-runner. Conservatives don’t trust him, which has made it hard for him to gather the party and mount a forceful challenge against Barack Obama. Throughout his 2012 campaign, the virus of conservative doubt suddenly kicks in whenever he has appeared strong . Both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have benefited from this malady.

Romney has so far been able to medicate this problem, by spending money to make his opponents seem unpalatable and by working to turn out his vote. When he doesn’t spend the money, the virus returns. In flyover events like the ones last night, where Romney did not invest much money or effort, there was no groundswell of Romney fanatics rallying to his cause. But there is a passionate core of the party looking for someone loud and proud to speak for them. Romney has never been that guy. The more those voters are told to line up behind Romney, the more they revolt. The three states that voted last night were thick with the social conservatives whom Romney has struggled to court. These bouts of Romney anemia are to blame for the fact that there is no momentum in this race. Winning a contest doesn’t seem to help you very much in the next contest. Another contributing factor has been that the two men fighting to be the conservative alternative to Romney have not been able capitalize on the weakness.

Romney is still the favorite to win the nomination. He has the money and the organization and the staff to win. He’s in a scramble to take care of the tactics that will help him in the coming weeks, but he’s got an organization that has always planned for a long fight. Romney now has some time before the next contests, which are not in evangelical-heavy states, and he showed after South Carolina that when he is focused he can be ruthlessly efficient. Santorum, by contrast, has to translate the firehose of cash and attention he’ll now get into effective effort. He wasn’t great at doing that after Iowa.

Romney also benefits from the vote-splitting between Santorum and Gingrich, which will continue—although Newt Gingrich will have to do something to remind everyone that he’s still in the race. Attacking the elite media and subway riders probably isn’t going to cut it. They didn’t vote in those three states last night. Gingrich has styled himself as a grass-roots politician speaking for real people, but Rick Santorum is that candidate. Santorum is also an ideas candidate in a way that Gingrich is not. While the former speaker has lots and lots of ideas, Santorum has stuck to his argument about rebuilding America’s manufacturing sector in a much more focused way. His advocacy for the link between the strength of the family and the economy has also been constant.

Romney will now turn his guns on Santorum. He has a good case to make: Are Republicans really going to nominate a senator who has no executive experience to replace a president whose signature failing—as many in the GOP see it—is his lack of executive experience? Especially when he himself is a Washington outsider and a proven leader?

The question for Romney now is whether he opens up a two-front war against his opponents. This morning a press release from the woozy staff in Boston attacks Gingrich. In recent days, the Romney campaign has picked up its attacks on Santorum as a promoter of pork-barrel projects when he was in Washington. Attacks like these have taken their toll on Romney. His negative rating with independents has gone up. As the race plods on—and Nate Silver thinks it will plod on quite a lot—it hurts Romney because he gets attacked by his opponents and he’s got to engage in behavior that voters might not like. In late January an ABC/Washington Post poll showed that Romney’s unfavorable rating among independents had jumped 17 points to 51.

Santorum argues that he is the conservative who can draw bright contrasts with Obama. That ideological message resonates in caucuses, but it hasn’t in bigger contests where voters have thought more about electability. The constant refrain from voters I talked to in South Carolina and Florida who like Santorum but have gone with other candidates is that they just don’t think he can take on Obama.

In the contest of the anti-Romney candidates, Santorum doesn’t have the punch Newt has. On the other hand he also doesn’t have the baggage. He has a winning family story. Also: There is perhaps no greater attribute in conservative politics than sticking to your guns when everyone else counts you out. It’s a political message. It’s a biblical message. Santorum is the walking embodiment of that characteristic. Even his sweater-vest seems on message. 

Santorum worked hard in his victory speech to show that he could mount an effective attack against Obama, who he portrayed as a snob who thinks he knows better than regular people. That’s a good political attack and it also plays into the social issues where Santorum is stronger, particularly the recent fight over mandating that Catholic hospitals provide contraception to employees. That fight is about religion, but it’s also about the Obama administration working its way into every part of your life.

The next big battleground will be the Conservative Political Action Convention in Washington this Friday. Santorum, Gingrich, and Romney will all be there. It was at that gathering of die-hard conservatives in 1975 when Ronald Reagan made his case that the party needed to nominate a candidate of bold colors and not “pale pastels.” That’s the argument Santorum and Gingrich are making about Romney.

Romney has his own historical echo that can comfort him. It’s not unheard of for front-runners to lose like this—Reagan, Bush, Bush, and John McCain all lost contests. McCain lost 16 contests. Despite the cliché that Republicans fall in line, it’s actually a messy party. The GOP has had lots of establishment/conservative fights—Eisenhower vs. Taft, Rockefeller vs. Goldwater, Nixon vs. Rockefeller, Dole vs. Buchanan.

Romney today is on the opposite end of the phenomenon that helped him four years ago. Conservatives upset with the establishment choice need somewhere to go. In 2008, they picked Romney in Colorado, where he won the state going away as the conservative alternative to John McCain. That’s also why he won in Minnesota in 2008. Only about half as many people turned out to vote for Romney in Colorado as they did in 2008, and he came in third in Minnesota, where he also received far fewer votes than last time. Now he’s John McCain, and Rick Santorum is playing Mitt Romney. Unfortunately for Romney, who has so often been criticized for inhabiting so many different variations, he can’t be himself and the Mitt Romney of 2008.