British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
The timing of this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference worked out nicely for Rick Santorum, who took the stage Friday morning less than three days after his startling sweep of Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado. The room was full of activists who have been looking — and looking and looking and looking — for a “pure” alternative to Mitt Romney, with many more watching on television or online. Santorum’s breakthrough this week caught their attention, and here was his chance to make the sale.
Of course, Santorum is hardly the only Republican candidate who’s earned an audition for the role of chief Romney rival, and each one before him has proven spectacularly incapable of capitalizing on the opportunity.
Rick Perry surged to gigantic polling leads when he jumped into the race late last summer, then made a fool of himself in debate after debate and became an afterthought. Herman Cain supplanted Perry sometime during the fall, but fizzled when he couldn’t provide a simple, coherent defense of his signature 9-9-9 plan and after a bizarre sexual harassment saga. Then there was Newt Gingrich, whose erratic style and political past gave his (many) intraparty enemies an endless supply of ammunition — enough to destroy him once in December and then again when he somehow rose from the dead in January.
During all of this, Santorum did have one brief moment of glory, when he gained some last-second traction and won the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses. But his victory wasn’t announced until weeks later, after he’d fared poorly in New Hampshire and while Gingrich was in the middle of his second surge. Only now is he enjoying the sort of attention and momentum that his Iowa showing should have produced.
Against this backdrop, Santorum’s performance at CPAC this morning was very effective in a very odd way. His speech was hardly great, but it wasn’t bad either. It was a generic, competently delivered articulation of the issues and themes conservatives have been stressing in the Obama era.
Santorum sniffed at “the politicization of science they call global warming,” blasted Obama’s healthcare reform law for killing freedom, promoted “supply-side economics for the working man,” and spent considerable time on “foundational principles” — the culture war issues that have suddenly become prevalent in recent weeks. And he took some shots at Romney — “the person in Massachusetts who built the largest government-run healthcare system in the United States – someone who would simply give that issue away in the fall, give the issue away of government control of your health.”
Again, in many ways this was a thoroughly average address, remarks that an entry-level political consultant could have drawn up for a candidate trying to curry favor with Tea Party Republicans and separate himself from a slippery opponent with an extensive moderate-to-liberal paper trail. But it was remarkable because everyone else who’s emerged from the GOP pack to vie with Romney has been incapable of delivering anything like it. Perry couldn’t remember the words, Cain could recite one slogan and nothing else, and Gingrich — the supposedly world-class debater — was either unable or unwilling to communicate a basic conservative case for himself and against Romney when they shared the stage.
For Romney, this is the real threat of Santorum’s candidacy: that for the first time a main challenger has emerged who lacks substantial personal and ethical baggage, whose policy views are largely consistent and in-line with those of the GOP base, and who is a competent communicator. If this sounds like a low standard, it is — and it says a lot about the 2012 GOP field that it’s taken this long for someone with such basic attributes to emerge (and that that someone is the guy who came to the race fresh off an 18-point reelection loss in a swing state).
Romney spoke about two hours after Santorum on Friday. His speech was also a competent expression of conservative grievances with Obama — “the poster child for arrogant government,” as Romney called him. But the message that Republican voters have been sending for more than a year now, in polls and in primary results like the ones we saw this week, is that they wonder if Romney really means it and that they’d prefer to have someone else representing them in the fall campaign. So it was probably not accidental that Santorum began his remarks by reminding the crowd that he’d been coming to CPAC for years — not just after he decided to run for president.
“I know you, and you know me,” he said. “And that’s important.”
Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki More Steve Kornacki.
British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
Gillian Anderson, aka Scully, with a conger eel.
British actor Nickolas Grace with a red mullet.
French actress Aure Atika with a parrotfish.
French-Portuguese actress Barbara Cabrita with a herring.
French actress Caroline Ducey with a barracuda.
French actor Emmanuel de Brantes with a barramundi.
British DJ Godlie with a redfish.
French/American actor Jean-Marc Barr with a mako shark.
BBC star Jeany Spark with a seabass.
Opera singer Joanna Bergin with a mackerel.
Japanese fashion designer Kenzo Takada with a bonito.
French actress Mélanie Bernier with a European eel.
British actor and director Serge Hazanavicius with a thicklip grey mullet.
French jazz guitarist Thomas Dutronc with a dusky grouper.
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