With Tuesday Caucuses, Santorum Gets a Second Chance to Shine

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Max Whittaker / The New York Times / Redux

Rick Santorum, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, leaves a campaign stop at the Churchill County Museum in Fallon, Nevada, Feb. 2, 2012.

It’s drawn none of the hype lavished on the early GOP primaries, but more delegates are technically on the table in the Tuesday, Feb. 7,  nominating contests than on any other day so far this cycle. For the first time, the spotlight will be shared among multiple states, when Republican voters head out to caucus in Minnesota (40 delegates) and Colorado (36 delegates) as well as take part in a meaningless “beauty contest” in Missouri. (Under their peculiar rituals, the results in all three states are nonbinding. Minnesota and Colorado will select delegates through local conventions, while Missouri will award its 52 delegates based on the results of its March 17 caucuses.) And while back-to-back wins in Florida and Nevada suggest Mitt Romney is once again on a glide path to the nomination, Tuesday’s contests present a second chance for Rick Santorum to elbow his way back into the picture as the chief conservative alternative to the former Massachusetts governor. 

As Newt Gingrich bumbled his way through Florida and Nevada, Santorum mostly skipped both states — the former a winner-take-all contest in which it made little sense to waste time and money, the latter a Romney redoubt — to focus on Tuesday’s contests. Now he is poised to reap the rewards. While polling in each state has been light, a series of Public Policy Polling surveys found Santorum with a slight edge over Romney in Minnesota, 29% to 27%, and in second place in Colorado, where he trails Romney 40% to 26%. A week-old survey placed him atop Missouri’s bragging-rights derby. “It looks like Santorum has a decent chance at wins in Minnesota and Missouri and a second-place finish in Colorado. Seventy-two hours from now he may have supplanted Gingrich as the top alternative to Romney,” PPP’s Tom Jensen wrote on Sunday.

(MORE: Romney Rolls in Nevada)

We’ve heard this song before. A month ago, Santorum had a chance to emerge as Romney’s foil following his surprise win in Iowa. He flopped soon after. But a combination of favorable demographics, forceful debate performances and shrewd scheduling has positioned Santorum to do better this time. While Romney’s business-friendly conservatism is a natural fit for Colorado, Minnesota’s caucuses, like Iowa’s, are dominated by the party’s conservative base. Over the past week, Santorum has repeatedly made the case that nominating Romney would be a disaster for Republicans since his purported apostasies — including the health care plan he implemented in Massachusetts and his support for TARP — would rob the party of the best weapons in its general-election arsenal. By pounding Romney on health care in recent debates, Santorum has endeared himself to conservative leaders, winning endorsements from the likes of Michelle Malkin and Hot Air’s Ed Morrissey. His campaign raised some $4.5 million in January — pocket change for Romney, perhaps, but a marked improvement for a penny-pinching outfit that ferried the candidate around Iowa in a Dodge pickup.

But while Santorum is arguably the only candidate left in the field who has burnished his standing in the party, after lackluster finishes in four straight states, he is running out of time to prove that he has the ability to thwart Romney’s march to the nomination. “If you want a conservative, Rick Santorum is the candidate. But we have to use February to show that we are indeed the most potent conservative in the race,” says Santorum strategist John Brabender. Taking care to temper expectations, Brabender declines to set clear benchmarks for success, but he says the campaign’s path to Tampa includes strong finishes in Midwestern states like Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Michigan over the next month. While Santorum is known for his stridency on social issues, his camp believes his blue collar background and message of economic populism will play well in a region home to several swing states where Romney has yet to prove his mettle.  “If we have some good second [-place finishes], that’s a strong showing. A first would be a home run,” Brabender says. “We don’t have to hit home runs, but we do have to hit some singles.”

(MORE: What Will Mitt Romney Talk About if the Economy Gets Better?)

Romney’s brain trust in Boston remains wary of the long ball. For two days, Romney’s relentless press shop has eschewed its usual barrage of attacks on Gingrich to churn out criticisms of Santorum. It sent reporters a voluminous dossier on Santorum’s taste for pork, forwarded a reminder that the former Pennsylvania Senator endorsed Romney four years ago and tapped surrogate Tim Pawlenty to enumerate Santorum’s flaws. “He clearly has been part of the big-spending Establishment in Congress and in the influence-peddling industry that surrounds Congress,” the former Minnesota governor said in a conference call the campaign held Monday, Feb. 6, to criticize Santorum. “He has been a champion of earmarks, and to hold himself out now as somebody who is an unquestionable conservative in these matters just is not supported by the facts.”

Santorum’s camp bristled. “Romney never touts his own record — because it’s abysmal,” communications director Hogan Gidley said in an e-mail to reporters. “In the Republican Party, we have a name for someone who supports government health care mandates, big bank bailouts and radical cap-and-trade initiatives. We call them Democrats.” But as they know well, the swipes signify that Santorum is once again someone worth attacking. If Romney’s press shop finds a new target on Wednesday, it will be a sign that Santorum has once again failed to justify the spotlight.

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