Last Night Was Santorum's Iowa Do-Over, And He Nailed It

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THE STUMP FEBRUARY 8, 2012

Last Night Was Santorum's Iowa Do-Over, And He Nailed It

Watching the results trickle in last night—when Rick Santorum carried two of three contests and was closing in on the third—I couldn’t help feeling like we were back in Iowa. Back then, Santorum was surging, Newt Gingrich was fading, and Mitt Romney was laboring to improve on his 2008 vote totals. Had Santorum gone out and claimed victory before the rest of the country went to bed, he might have had a shot at consolidating the anti-Romney vote before Gingrich went and stole the show. 

Fortunately for Santorum, the Missouri primary and caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado re-set the old storyline. Newt was nowhere to be found, finishing out of the money in two of the three states (and a distant third in Colorado). Romney’s vote share actually fell last night relative to 2008 in what had been key regions of strength, like Missouri’s population centers and the entire state of Colorado. (Romney could only say he was confident of a “first or second” place finish there when he appeared before his supporters.) Meanwhile, Santorum was triumphant, having correctly bet that relentless campaigning in the three states would position him to win. As the Times’ Nate Silver pointed out, Santorum made 22 trips to the hosts of last night’s contests over the past month, versus only three for Romney. 

For Santorum, the key difference with Iowa is that, this time, he used his moment to frame the race to his advantage. His speech summed up Romney’s familiar vulnerabilities—that he’s too close to Obama on health care, climate change, and Wall Street. But, more importantly, Santorum played a card that had been missing from the GOP contest so far. He implied that both Romney and Obama took these positions because they’re intellectual snobs—they think they “know better,” in Santorum’s formulation. To my mind, it’s the far better way to use Romney’s wealth and success against him in a GOP primary than economic populism. The problem isn’t that Romney has the checkbook of an elitist, Santroum is saying. It’s that he has the arrogance of an elitist. 

What it does add up to? Something less than a Santorum presidency, I think. But not nothing either. Team Romney will surely dismiss tonight’s results by pointing to Santorum’s much heavier presence in the states up for grabs. They’ll say that Missouri’s delegate-less primary rendered it meaningless, which explains why only about half as many Missourians showed up at the polls today as did in 2008.  

Both are fair points. But, in a way, they make the results more damning. Romney is supposed to be the de facto GOP nominee, a guy the party has already decided to entrust with the solemn responsibility of displacing Barack Obama. If at this point in the primaries he can only reliably win by making the hardest of hard sells, I’d say he’s got some pretty glaring vulnerabilities. My hunch is that Santorum exposes a few more of them before it's all said and done. 

Update: It's official—Santorum wins Colorado, too. Apparently the election gods smile on the candidate who claims victory before the final results are in. Let it be a lesson to us all. 

Follow me on Twitter: @noamscheiber

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posted in: the stump, politics, barack obama, rick santorum, colorado, iowa, minnesota, missouri, republican party

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