Rick Santorum settles the electability argument

Crudely attacking JFK, calling Obama a “snob,” and other crimes against swing voter outreach

Topics: Opening Shot,

Rick Santorum settles the electability argumentRepublican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, left, with his daughter, Elizabeth, right, visits with supportes during a campaign rally, Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012, in Davison, Mich. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) (Credit: AP)

The possibility that the most electable candidate in the Republican field may not actually be Mitt Romney has come into focus these past few weeks.

The thinking is that Romney, whose standing with independent voters (particularly those from blue-collar backgrounds) has taken a real hit during the primary season, has shown himself to be an easy mark for the Obama campaign and Democrats – a lavishly wealthy man who exudes 1 percent-ness in an unusually attack ad-friendly way.

But Rick Santorum, the same thinking goes, could, by virtue of his own middle-class roots and style, hang on to some of the lower-income, less-educated white voters that Romney would lose in the fall – while also generating more enthusiasm among the GOP base than the former Massachusetts governor would.

This is the basic argument that Mike DeWine, the former U.S. senator and current attorney general from Ohio, made when he defected from Romney’s camp two weeks ago: “He’s just not connecting. I don’t know what it is, but I can tell you from real people I’m talking to, it ain’t getting any better.”

According to the RealClearPolitics average, Romney is now running only 1.7 points better than Santorum in trial heats with Barack Obama (with Newt Gingrich running nearly 10 points worse than both of them). But just when it gets tempting to say there’s something to the case for Santorum’s superior electability, he opens his mouth – again and again.

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That was the story over the weekend, when Santorum made headlines first by calling Obama “a snob” because he “once said he wants everybody in America to go to college” and then by saying that he “almost threw up” when he read the famous 1960 speech in which JFK assured Americans of his independence from Rome. The “snob” line came a day after Santorum was in the news for claiming to Glenn Beck that Obama’s college push was rooted in a desire to send teenagers to liberal “indoctrinations mills.”

And this has been the story for the past few weeks, since Santorum emerged as Romney’s chief rival and earned a spot in the national spotlight. He promised to make his campaign in Michigan about economic issues; in his first week in the state he ended up railing against Obama’s “phony theology,” dropping a Hitler reference, suggesting insurance coverage for prenatal care encourages abortion, and earned international scorn for false claims about the Netherlands’ euthanasia law.

Notably, Santorum actually has been talking about the economy as he’s campaigned in Michigan. But that’s just the point: His message has been completely drowned out by the noise he’s generated with his culture war diversions. And there’s reason to believe this is how Santorum would behave as a general election candidate – that he just can’t keep himself from sounding off on divisive social issues, and that he has little sense of tact in doing so.

If he really is incapable of reining himself in, then Sanoturm is far less electable than Romney, even if it doesn’t show up in polling right now. Think of the ammunition he’s given Democrats with his white-hot rhetoric these past few weeks, then extrapolate it over a months-long general election campaign. Santorum’s antics, especially when amplified by the press and Obama’s campaign, would have the potential to unnerve and alarm swing voters like they’ve rarely been unnerved or alarmed in a presidential general election.

Romney has given Democrats plenty of ammunition too, maybe even enough to cost him an otherwise winnable fall race. But the controversies and embarrassments he tends to stumble into just aren’t in the same class as Santorum’s – unless you think delivering a major speech in an empty stadium, awkwardly talking about the height of trees, and exhibiting bizarre hostility to a benign debate question are as damaging to a candidate as, say, having to explain your 2008 declaration that “the father of lies, Satan” is targeting the United States.

The race in Michigan is close. Despite his slippage in the last week, Santorum still has a chance to win it tomorrow. But no matter the outcome, his time in the spotlight this month has put to rest whatever doubt there was about Romney’s status as the most electable – or least unelectable – Republican candidate.

Steve Kornacki

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

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