In the Arena

5 Days Till Iowa: The Santorum Surge and the Bachmann Fizzle

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Des Moines, Iowa

Some housekeeping first: I have a new print column, which TIME subscribers can read online here, that elaborates on some of the themes I’ve been blogging about in recent days–namely that this Republican ship of clowns has managed, despite non-stop silliness, to raise some very basic questions about American democracy that will probably be at the center of next year’s campaign. How much government do we want? Can we renovate the welfare state to meet the fiscal needs and social demands of the 21st century? Should we even be thinking about that? Mitt Romney has already thrown down this gauntlet, positing his “Opportunity Society” versus President Obama’s “Entitlement Society.” This is actually an argument we need to have.

Second, sorry for not posting an Iowa countdown diary on Wednesday, but I was rushing about the state, catching Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul in the act. It was a big day for Paul, despite the TIME/CNN poll that showed him a tiny bit behind  Mitt Romney, and a terrible day for Michele Bachmann.

The big news came at the end of the day, when Iowa State Senator Kent Sorenson, Bachmann’s state co-chair, suddenly decided to jump ship and endorse Ron Paul. To the amazement of Iowa political junkies, Sorenson came to the stage at Paul’s largish rally at the State Fairgrounds, and announced the switch. (Former Swampwoman Karen Tumulty told me that she’d just seen Sorenson on the stage with Bachmann three hours earlier in Indianola.) This sets a new land-speed record for a political defection, and it pretty much kills the Bachmann campaign.

Earlier, Bachmann had sustained another body blow in the TIME/CNN Iowa poll, where she finished tied for last–though not a terrible last–with Rick Perry at 11%. How can a poll be a body blow? Well, we’re in the last week now and religious conservatives are still trying to figure out how to leverage their vaunted power in the caucuses. Right now, they’re split among Bachmann, Perry and Santorum–but with Santorum beginning to rise, partly on the strength of some local evangelical endorsements, more than a few Bachmann and Perry supporters, and maybe even some Newters, may now begin to drift to Santorum.

On Wendesday, I was thinking that Santorum’s late move might resemble the John Edwards surge in 2004, which occurred entirely during the last week in Iowa and landed Edwards in a strong second place (and later handed him the vice presidential nomination). Today, I’m beginning to wonder: If the harmonic confluence of evangelicals finally takes place, could Rick Santorum actually  win this thing? Yes, indeed, he could.

That would be indescribably delicious, and enormously weird. And sort of justifiable: Santorum has run this race the old-fashioned way, working hard, meeting people in small groups. He has campaigned honorably, by his own lights. I should be clear–his lights are not mine in many cases, especially his grotesque impugning of homosexuality–but he walks his ultra-orthodox walk, home-schooling his children, refusing an abortion even when childbirth threatened his wife’s life, raising another child with a severe affliction lovingly. He has also had some half-decent ideas, like zeroing out the corporate tax on manufacturing in order to stimulate that sector.

He probably won’t win. Mitt Romney seems to be leveraging his inevitability. He’s the safe bet now. I suspect that the Ron Paul wave has crested and will ebb, although probably not crash. His nasty newsletters are beginning to take their toll. And there are just so many–consistent, but difficult–positions that he takes: oh, he wants to bring all the troops home and close down the Federal Reserve system and legalize drugs and allow dangerous terrorists like Anwar al-Awlaki fester comfortably in Yemen? You can agree with some of those, but all of them? Yikes.

Meanwhile, in a small, sad footnote, the TIME/CNN poll shows Jon Huntsman treading water at 9% in the New Hampshire primary. Romney seems handily in control there. I’m sure that Huntsman would have hoped that he would have caused Romney to feel just a little bit of heat by now. It is not impossible that if Gingrich continues to fade and reality catches up with Paul that Huntsman could stage a Santorum-like surge in the next 12 days. (New Hampshire is not fertile turf for Santorum, should he take off in Iowa.) But the window is closing–and too bad. As I’ve been saying, Huntsman has had the most creative set of policy ideas out there. Of course, as Jerry Brown once told me, apropos of nothing and with tongue stuck in cheek, “policy is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

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