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.

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

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 17
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    John Stanmeyer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Container City: Shipping containers, indispensable tool of the globalized consumer economy, reflect the skyline in Singapore, one of the world’s busiest ports.

    Lu Guang

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Man Covering His Mouth: A shepherd by the Yellow River cannot stand the smell, Inner Mongolia, China

    Carolyn Cole/LATimes

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Angry Crowd: People jostle for food relief distribution following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti

    Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    “Black Friday” Shoppers: Aggressive bargain hunters push through the front doors of the Boise Towne Square mall as they are opened at 1 a.m. Friday, Nov. 24, 2007, Boise, Idaho, USA

    Google Earth/NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Suburban Sprawl: aerial view of landscape outside Miami, Florida, shows 13 golf courses amongst track homes on the edge of the Everglades.

    Garth Lentz

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Toxic Landscape: Aerial view of the tar sands region, where mining operations and tailings ponds are so vast they can be seen from outer space; Alberta, Canada

    Cotton Coulson/Keenpress

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Ice Waterfall: In both the Arctic and Antarctic regions, ice is retreating. Melting water on icecap, North East Land, Svalbard, Norway

    Yann Arthus-Bertrand

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Satellite Dishes: The rooftops of Aleppo, Syria, one of the world’s oldest cities, are covered with satellite dishes, linking residents to a globalized consumer culture.

    Stephanie Sinclair

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Child Brides: Tahani, 8, is seen with her husband Majed, 27, and her former classmate Ghada, 8, and her husband in Hajjah, Yemen, July 26, 2010.

    Mike Hedge

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Megalopolis: Shanghai, China, a sprawling megacity of 24 Million

    Google Earth/ 2014 Digital Globe

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Big Hole: The Mir Mine in Russia is the world’s largest diamond mine.

    Daniel Dancer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Clear-cut: Industrial forestry degrading public lands, Willamette National Forest, Oregon

    Peter Essick

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Computer Dump: Massive quantities of waste from obsolete computers and other electronics are typically shipped to the developing world for sorting and/or disposal. Photo from Accra, Ghana.

    Daniel Beltra

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Oil Spill Fire: Aerial view of an oil fire following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Gulf of Mexico

    Ian Wylie

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Slide 13

    Airplane Contrails: Globalized transportation networks, especially commercial aviation, are a major contributor of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Photo of contrails in the west London sky over the River Thames, London, England.

    R.J. Sangosti/Denver Post

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Fire: More frequent and more intense wildfires (such as this one in Colorado, USA) are another consequence of a warming planet.

  • Recent Slide Shows



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>