For all those waiting for the Republican primary to end, you’ll have to wait a bit longer: On Saturday Rick Santorum became the 11th Republican politician to lead a national presidential nomination poll during the 2012 cycle. And not just by a little—the Public Policy Polling survey showed Santorum with a 15-point (38-23) lead over Mitt Romney. According to PPP, Santorum was trouncing the field in the demographic categories that have looked difficult for putative nominee Mitt Romney from the beginning: Tea Party supporters, evangelicals, and those who call themselves “very conservative.” So is this the long-awaited consolidation of the party base around a challenger who can beat Romney? Or just another bump in a predestined road to victory for Mitt?
To answer this question, let's start with the things Santorum has going for him. If his surge in national polls can be attributed to any one factor, it’s the familiar murder-suicide scenario: The Romney-Gingrich cage match of Super-PAC-driven negative ads in South Carolina, Florida, and Nevada left Santorum as the only candidate with strongly positive personal ratings. PPP’s favorable/unfavorable ratios for the four remaining candidates certainly reinforce this interpretation, showing Romney at 44/43, Gingrich at 42/44, Ron Paul at 35/51—and Santorum at 62/24. With Santorum now dominating the very voter categories Gingrich was winning prior to Florida; with no life-giving televised candidate debates on the immediate horizon; and with Sheldon Adelson showing no signs of writing another gigantic check for his Super PAC, Newt may have run out of steam for the third and final time.
But what’s to keep the Romney Death Star from training its guns on Santorum just as it did on Newt (and before that, on Rick Perry)? That’s easy: The very conservative opinion-leaders who helped Mitt take down Newt—and whose support he ultimately needs—don’t want him to. Already the air is full of public and private pleas to Romney that he go easy on Rick, who unlike Gingrich has not spent several decades alienating powerful conservative leaders one at a time, and doesn’t have the glaring marital history and Freddie Mac baggage for opponents to exploit. And any temptation in Romney’s camp to go after Santorum with a clawhammer is also inhibited by Mitt’s own sinking favorability ratings among both primary and general-election voters. He can’t afford much more blowback from going nuclear on an opponent.
Amidst all this bad news for Romney, another PPP survey released on Monday showed Santorum’s new national lead spreading to Michigan, a February 28 primary state where Romney, as a local native, was assumed to have a big advantage. Rickymania may also have spread to the other state holding a primary that day, Arizona, where Romney was also thought to be in the driver’s seat (in this case because of AZ’s sizable Mormon population).
In the end though, Mitt’s money may come to the rescue. Even if he doesn’t go heavily negative, Romney can use his heavy money advantage to saturate the airwaves in these two states; Santorum can’t possibly match that unless his top Super-PAC donor, Foster Friess, drops an unimaginable amount of money on him. And if Romney does stage a February 28 comeback, the road gets much rockier for Santorum. Gingrich is likely to make a final stand on Super Tuesday in Oklahoma, Tennessee, and certainly Georgia, which will make a conservative consolidation for Santorum difficult. Rick won’t win Mitt’s own Massachusetts and isn’t even on the ballot in Virginia. His best shot then would rest on a breakthrough in Ohio—but that’s only possible if the money is there.
Perhaps the Pennsylvanian can navigate this series of landmines and slug it out with Mitt until the bitter end. But the qualities that made uber-conservative voters prefer almost everybody else at one point or another have not gone away. He’s still the guy who got waxed by 19 points in his 2006 Senate race; he’s still the social-issues zealot whose presence on the ticket would mobilize pro-choice and gay-rights activists more than anyone this side of Pat Buchanan; and he’s still the one-time would-be Beltway power broker whose intimate connection to ongoing scandals like the K Street Project has barely been mined. Even if Romney can’t go nuclear on him, Democrats can—to the point where the supposedly dominant economic issues of this general election could become secondary for many swing voters. That prospect should put plenty of doubt in the minds of Republican primary voters if Santorum ever appears to have a real shot at winning the nomination.
The best indication that the Santorum surge could turn out to be fleeting came on the same day as his startling national survey results, when the annual presidential straw poll at the American Conservative Union’s CPAC conference was won by none other than Mitt Romney. Even as the CPAC audience cheered Santorum’s culture-war zingers, the secret-ballot went to Mitt. Conservatives may talk like they want another Barry Goldwater, but in their hearts, they’d settle for another Richard Nixon.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic, a blogger for The Washington Monthly, and managing editor of The Democratic Strategist.