The Stump

Santorum Had a Great Debate--What Was He Thinking?

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So no question that Rick Santorum had an objectively good debate last night. He leveled what was easily the toughest critique against the Massachusetts health care plan that Mitt Romney has faced to date. And he’d clearly done his homework on Newt Gingrich, toonailing him on his decade-long sympathy for individual mandates and for being AWOL during the House banking scandal, when congressmen routinely overdrew their checking accounts without penalty. Santorum also managed to sound compassionate while toeing a hard line on immigration, then bashed both Romney and Gingrich for having supported a “pathway to citizenship” (what the right derides as “amnesty”) for illegal aliens. Santorum nicely distilled his theme for the night when he griped that Romney and Gingrich had both played too much “footsie with the left.”

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All of which left me wondering: What on earth was he thinking? Given his standing in the pollsin the mid-teens in South Carolina, roughly tied with Ron Paul for a distant third place thereSantorum has basically no chance of winning the state’s primary on Saturday. There are really only two possible winners in South Carolina: Gingrich and Romney. Now, if Romney wins, he will effectively wrap up the GOP nomination, since Florida is next on the primary schedule, and it’s a state where Romney is currently leading, and whose 10 media markets make his financial resources an overwhelming advantage. If Gingrich wins South Carolina, on the other hand, then the race gets scrambled, and, well, you never know. Gingrich is such a combustible candidate that anything could happen. He could self-immolate at any moment, giving Santorum the one-on-one matchup against Romney he supposedly craves.

Which is to say, if you’re Rick Santorum, your only hope is to have Romney lose and Newt win on Saturday. And yet Santorum spent half has time kneecapping the former speaker, making a Romney win more likely.

Perhaps, as Santorum confessed when the candidates were asked about their biggest mistake of the race, Santorum is just happy to have made the “final four” and is no longer thinking strategically. But, then, his campaign sure invested a lot of effort in opposition research for a candidate who’s throwing in the towel. It’s truly mystifying. In a way, the lapse epitomizes the GOP field’s approach to Romney for the past six months. Pretty much any time they had a choice between making Romney’s path to the nomination harder or easier, they almost always chose the latter, albeit inadvertently. Santorum's version last night was only the latest instance. 

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