What the Rick Santorum Swell Has Wrought

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“People say, when are you gonna get your surge?” Rick Santorum said today in Iowa. “I say, January 3.” He’s gloating and rightly so; a TIME/CNN poll released Wednesday showed Santorum thundering up the leader-board at the most opportune of times: five days before the first-in-the-nation caucuses.

If Santorum is indeed pulling away from the social conservative tangle that’s kept him, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann stuck near 10% for much of the last two months, it changes the Iowa math considerably: evangelicals may actually coalesce around one candidate, spoiling what looked likely to be a split decision win for Ron Paul or Mitt Romney and raising the possibility that Perry or Bachmann finish poorly enough to end their campaigns.  If you want evidence for how real that threat is, check out Perry’s new ad, cut today for Iowa radio:

It’s also, like so many of the developments in this primary campaign, a boon for Romney. Team Romney is playing the long game. His Super PAC is already buying time in South Carolina and continues to savage Newt Gingrich on airwaves everywhere, despite the former Speaker’s precipitous Iowa decline. Gingrich has shown potential in later states and remains a threat, even if an ever-shrinking one. Now Santorum is siphoning his supporters. And if Santorum cuts Perry down in Iowa, Romney doesn’t have to worry about a late advertising onslaught from the only candidate who’s ever come close to big-league competition in fundraising. Santorum has neither the money–he’s only just now scrambling to buy up his first scrap of airtime in New Hampshire–nor the broad appeal to contest later states such as Florida, but the longer he stays in, as with Paul, the more splintered the anybody-but-Mitt factions in those states will become.

Santorum’s not without any path to the nomination. If Gingrich’s trendline continues downward and Perry remains tongue-tied, Santorum has a narrow outside shot at becoming the consensus Not Romney candidate in South Carolina, the next state after Iowa where the conservative former Senator has some upside. But best not get to get too far ahead. Santorum’s busy today enjoying his first satisfying bump in Iowa.

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