Why Rick Santorum Is No Social-Conservative Savior

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Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum speaks at The Button Factory restaurant during a campaign stop Dec. 29, 2011 in Muscatine, Iowa.

With less than a week to go before the Iowa caucuses, it looks like the “come-from-way-behind Rick Santorum boomlet” I joked about a month ago could actually be a reality. And unlike many of the other candidate surges that have caused whiplash in this GOP-primary season, Santorum’s actually makes sense. It still doesn’t mean he has any lasting potential beyond the state where he has devoted the vast majority of his time, attention and resources. But Santorum’s placement in next Tuesday’s caucuses will be an important indicator of how strongly social conservatives feel about having a candidate of their own this year.

From the start, Santorum has been the “in a perfect world” candidate for many social conservatives. He has no history of squishiness on abortion or gay rights to explain away. Indeed, Santorum made passage of the ban on so-called partial-birth abortions his signature issue during his time in the Senate. He is especially beloved by conservative Catholics, who admire his large family — Santorum and his wife have seven children — and his theology, which could be described as more orthodox than the Pope’s. He recently told the Des Moines Register that the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference is wrong to support immigration reform, and he prefers to ignore the more liberal aspects of Catholic social teaching, such as the concept of a “preferential option for the poor.”

But while Santorum was the candidate who best reflected the hearts and minds of Iowa’s social conservatives, he was also the candidate with no chance in h-e-double-hockey-sticks, as Mitt Romney might say. The Pennsylvanian’s campaign puttered along on fumes from the start — he did virtually no fundraising and put all of his chips on Iowa, barely visiting other key primary states. Accordingly, his poll numbers hovered somewhere around Jon Huntsman’s and the margin of error.

Now, however, it’s decision time in Iowa. And all of the potential darlings of the Christian Right — Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain — have foundered. While Santorum was busy visiting every county in Iowa, his opponents each took time from their Fox News appearances and book tours and movie screenings to enjoy a race up the polls, only to fall Wile E. Coyote–like off the cliff. The only reason social conservatives had for not making Santorum their first choice was the belief that one of the other candidates had a better chance of winning the nomination. But now that all of them are long shots, why not embrace the guy with whom they identify most?

That seems to have been the thinking behind some significant endorsements Santorum received last week. Bob Vander Plaats, head of Iowa’s Family Leader organization, told reporters, “I believe Rick Santorum comes from us. Not to us. He comes from us. He is one of us.” In his endorsement, Chuck Hurley, president of the Iowa Family Policy Center, said Santorum “meets and exceeds the biblical qualifications” for Iowa evangelicals.

So all Santorum has to do to have a shot at the nomination is to consolidate the support of Iowa’s social conservatives, come out of Iowa with a solid showing and end up in a two-man race as the consensus not-Romney candidate. What could possibly go wrong?

For starters, Santorum has next to no organization outside Iowa. He just made his first ad buy in New Hampshire, a state where he is unlikely to medal. In South Carolina, where his social-conservative credentials should sell well, Santorum currently polls at 2.7%. And those are the states in which he at least has a campaign office. After those, he’s got nada. If you can name a major-party nominee who came out of Iowa with even close to this meager a field operation in other states, please let me know.

What about Mike Huckabee, you say? His commanding victory in Iowa four years ago brought him momentum and donations. Everyone knew he wouldn’t win in New Hampshire, but the votes of social conservatives kept him in the race. Huckabee also lacked a solid campaign operation. He nearly fought McCain to a draw in South Carolina, but after he took second in that state’s primary, Huckabee’s almighty mo started to ebb and he fell to fourth in Florida, which effectively sealed his fate. With more money and a bigger organization, he might have been able to really contest McCain for the nomination. But Huckabee’s 2008 campaign looks like a well-funded behemoth compared with Santorum’s 2012 outfit. Though donations have likely picked up over the past week, as of Sept. 30, the Santorum campaign had less than $200,000 on hand and was more than $71,000 in debt.

Santorum also lacks Huckabee’s kinder, gentler approach to social conservatism. Huckabee loved to say that he was a conservative, just not angry about it. Santorum, on the other hand, is one seriously pissed-off conservative. He can be personable and relaxed in the realm of retail politics. But in any other setting, his jaw is usually set as if expecting a blow, and his wide-eyed stare is intense, punctuated by infrequent, dramatic blinks.

Finally, Iowa is still very much in flux. The most likely outcome is that social conservatives split their votes and eliminate the possibility of a clear alternative emerging from the state. Mark Silk, an invaluable expert on religion and politics, has taken a look at the most recent PPP Iowa poll and noted that among Evangelical Republicans, six candidates poll within nine points of one another, with Ron Paul and Romney leading the pack at 21% and 16%, respectively. When Huckabee won the state in 2008, it was with 46% of the Evangelical vote. And that, as Silk points out, was a year in which Evangelicals made up 60% of the GOP electorate. The best estimates are that Evangelical participation will drop this year by at least 10 points in Iowa. If that’s the case, then judging by this week’s polls, Paul and Romney would each capture about one-quarter of the overall vote, with the other candidates far behind them.

Even if Evangelicals and other social conservatives — don’t forget Iowa’s Catholics! — turn out in massive numbers next week, the Republican candidates seem determined to ensure that their votes are hopelessly divided. It takes some doing these days to track who is attacking whom, with Gingrich declaring he wouldn’t vote for Paul if he won the GOP nomination, Perry going after Santorum, Bachmann bashing Paul and Perry and everybody attacking Gingrich.

If Santorum’s rise in the polls merely leaves him in a jumble of also-rans in Iowa, social conservatives will find themselves once again with a nominee not of their choosing. Throughout the spring and summer of 2008, the GOP voters who were least enthusiastic about John McCain were the most conservative Evangelicals. They perked up when Sarah Palin joined the ticket, but it may not be possible for Romney to buy them off so easily. For all the Santorum campaign’s shortcomings, he’s their best shot.

Amy Sullivan is a contributing writer at TIME and author of the book The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap (Scribner, 2008). Articles of Faith, her column on the intersection of religion and politics, appears on TIME.com every Friday.

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