Santorum surge forces Romney to take stock

Thu, Feb 9, 2012, 00:00

Santorum has deflated the argument that Romney will inevitably be nominated candidate, writes LARA MARLOWEin Washington

BY WINNING caucuses in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri on Tuesday night, the former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum stopped in its tracks the momentum gained by Mitt Romney from his Florida and Nevada wins. More important, Santorum deflated the argument that Romney will inevitably be nominated as the Republican presidential candidate.

Though he trails Romney in numbers of delegates – none were awarded on Tuesday night – Santorum has now won contests in four states; Romney has won only three.

The Santorum surge forced the Romney campaign, which already saw itself taking on President Barack Obama, to refocus on its immediate rivals. Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to Romney, told MSNBC yesterday that Santorum and Newt Gingrich were “two peas in a pod” and “Washington insiders”.

Romney’s “Super PAC” can be expected to resuscitate television advertisements it showed in New Hampshire, accusing Santorum of being “addicted to pork” – pork barrel spending – for having sought taxpayers’ money for his former Senate constituency.

Santorum questioned Romney’s conservativsm on Fox News. “Mitt Romney is saying that I’m not a conservative,” said the winner, still flush from the previous night’s victory. “That’s almost laughable for a moderate Massachusetts governor who has been for big-government programmes.”

At his victory party in Missouri, an exultant Santorum declared that “Conservatism is alive and well” and he could win the nomination: “I don’t stand here and claim to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. I stand here to be the conservative alternative to Barack Obama.”

The three leading Republican candidates will attempt to burnish their conservative credentials at a meeting in Washington tomorrow of the Conservative Political Action Conference, an evangelical group allied to Israel. The influential conservative blogger Erick Erickson called Santorum’s win a victory for the group.

“From Missouri to Minnesota to Colorado, the Republican electorate sent a very clear signal – they want conviction over electability,” Erickson wrote. “They do not like Mitt Romney. They see Santorum as authentic. They see Mitt Romney as a fraud. Rick Santorum swept the races. Romney, the front runner, got crushed by conservatives.” Romney’s rout in the three midwestern states showed what can happen if he lets his guard down.

While Romney and Gingrich were slugging it out in Florida and Nevada, Santorum quietly cultivated Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri. The candidates and their “Super PACs” spent an aggregate of some $500,000 in the three states – a small percentage of the tens of millions of dollars lavished on South Carolina and Florida.

“Tonight, we had an opportunity to see what a campaign looks like when one candidate isn’t outspent five or 10 to one,” Santorum said. He reportedly received $250,000 in donations on the internet in the hours following his victory, and will use the February lull to raise more funds.

Foreseeing the disastrous evening for their candidate, the Romney campaign issued a statement just before the caucuses.

“Of course, there is no way for any nominee to win first place in every single contest,” wrote Rich Beeson, the political director of the campaign. “John McCain lost 19 states in 2008, and we expect our opponents to notch a few wins too. But unlike the other candidates, our campaign has the resources and organisation to keep winning over the long run.” Romney and Gingrich could console themselves that the Tuesday night caucuses, like Iowa on January 3rd, are non-binding votes that do not award delegates. But when state conventions get around to choosing delegates, the caucus results will be used as a guideline.

Most humiliating for Romney was the contrast with his performance in the same states four years ago. In 2008, he won Colorado with 60 per cent of the vote. On Tuesday night, Santorum won 40 per cent there, with 35 per cent for Romney.

Gingrich and Santorum are doing Romney the favour of dividing the conservative vote. Missouri, where Gingrich failed to qualify for the ballot, showed what conservatives could do if they banded together: Santorum won 55 per cent of the vote, Romney 25 per cent, with 12 per cent for Ron Paul. Romney appears to have paid the price for his “I am not concerned about the very poor” comment, which went viral last week.

The ongoing debate about contraceptives also appeared to help Santorum, a strict Catholic.

The Obama administration has outraged conservatives by ordering Catholic universities, hospitals and charities to provide contraception for their employees through health insurance plans.

In an opinion piece for Politico, Santorum equated Romney with the president, because Massachusetts forced Catholic hospitals to dispense emergency contraceptives to rape victims when he was governor.