Rick Santorum will pay for this

The rule of the GOP race so far: No one threatens Mitt’s White House dreams and gets away with it

Topics: War Room, 2012 Elections, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney,

Rick Santorum will pay for thisRick Santorum (Credit: AP/Jeff Roberson)

If one statistic explains why Rick Santorum was able to score such an impressive three-state sweep on Tuesday night, it’s this: In all three states that voted — Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri — his favorable rating with Republicans stood at over 70 percent, well above the numbers for Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.

There was a very good reason for this: Romney left him alone.

After suffering a lopsided defeat to Gingrich in the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary, Romney’s campaign and its super PAC friends steered their energy and resources into a blunt and relentless effort to tear him down. In ads, press releases and surrogate conference calls, the (many) low moments from Gingrich’s run as House speaker in the late ’90s were aired, and Romney himself used a debate to accuse his opponent of using “repulsive” and “inexcusable” campaign tactics. Gingrich fired back with venomous intensity, accusing Romney of having “a profound character problem” and branding him “a liberal who was pro-abortion, pro-gun rights, pro-tax increases and pro-gay rights” as Massachusetts governor.

Romney got the better of this fight, in that he killed Gingrich’s post-South Carolina momentum, netted a commanding victory in Florida, and rolled into February in a strong position to leave Gingrich in the dust once and for all. But the Romney-Gingrich sniping also allowed Santorum to stand above the fray while pitching his message to Republicans in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri, states that are culturally and demographically suited to Santorum and his message.

With no one attacking him — and with Romney, whose campaign evidently believed that a February sweep could be attained at minimal expense, spending little money — Santorum flourished under the radar in all three states. Polling in advance of Tuesday’s contests was limited, and it only became clear in the final 48 hours that Santorum was poised for a big day. And even then, it seemed unlikely he’d win all three, much less by the margins he ended up enjoying.



In his victory speech, Santorum crowed that “tonight, we had an opportunity to see what a campaign looks like when one candidate isn’t outspent five or 10 to one.” Which is true enough, but it also points to the main reason to doubt that Santorum’s trifecta will vault him into serious contention for the nomination: He’s got Romney’s attention now — which means that he’s in for the same well-funded abuse that Gingrich endured as soon as he won South Carolina. Actually, the abuse began on Monday, when Romney’s campaign realized that Santorum was going to do well the next day. But now it will intensify, with Santorum in position to use his impressive show of strength to further marginalize Gingrich and to emerge as the right’s consensus alternative to Romney.

Apparently, Santorum will now make a play in Michigan, which will hold its primary on Feb. 28. The state is an appealing target for him; it’s filled with the kind of blue-collar and middle-class voters Romney has struggled with elsewhere, and it contains a surprisingly sizable chunk of conservative evangelicals. It is Romney’s native state, but polls have shown the former Massachusetts governor is at least theoretically vulnerable. After that, Ohio and the Southern states that will vote in early March could also be good targets for Santorum. On paper, he could do some serious damage to Romney in the weeks ahead.

But the GOP campaign will look a lot different in these states than it did in the ones that voted Tuesday night. Expect Romney to engage Santorum directly, as he did with Gingrich (the next debate is in two weeks), and expect his campaign and his super PAC allies to spend heavily, flooding the airwaves with the sorts of negative attacks that helped do Gingrich in. Romney’s surrogates will get in on the act too. When Michigan’s primary arrives in three weeks, it’s just about impossible to imagine Santorum enjoying a 70 percent favorable rating in the state. Romney and his campaign are used to this by now: Every challenger who has suddenly surged into contention has fallen back to earth quickly.

Of course, some of those challengers made it awfully easy for Romney. Rick Perry’s epically bad debate performances last fall turned him into a joke even among Republicans, deflating national poll numbers that had once hovered around 40 percent. And Gingrich — well, where to start? It also helped that the GOP’s opinion-shaping class, whatever it thinks of Romney, is largely united in the view that Gingrich would be a disastrous general election candidate. So when Romney essentially mugged him after South Carolina, most party elites were content to sit on their hands and pretend they didn’t see anything; almost no one spoke up in Newt’s defense.

Santorum is not as easy a mark. He’s basically a competent candidate whose policy views are generally consistent and in line with those of the party base. The biggest knock on him, one that probably prevented him from breaking out earlier in the race, is that he came to the race on the heels of a landslide Senate reelection defeat in a key swing state. But now that he actually does have some traction, that might not matter for much. And if Romney comes after him in this month’s debate, Santorum — unlike Gingrich — will probably be able to defend himself effectively and land some punches of his own. It’s possible, then, that a Romney assault on Santorum won’t produce the same dramatic results as the Gingrich takedown did. A key question is whether party elites will sit on their hands again this time, or if some of them will rally to Santorum’s side and put the heat on Romney for running a negative race.

So while Romney will undoubtedly make Santorum pay for his victories this week, it remains to be seen just how steep the price will be.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>