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Santorum’s Moment Finally Arrives

Two months ago, just as Herman Cain’s campaign was about to start to unravel, I wrote that perhaps it was Rick Santorum’s turn for a surge. I was, of course, wrong. It was Newt Gingrich’s turn back at the end of October and the beginning of November to take off and to be, at least for a few weeks, something of a frontrunner. But with only days to go before voters in Iowa cast the first actual votes of the caucus/primary season, it looks like Santorum’s moment has arrived. A CNN/Time/ORC poll released on Wednesday shows Santorum surging ahead of his competitors for the social conservative vote into third place among likely caucus goers with 16 percent.

Santorum’s timing is impeccable. With Gingrich collapsing (the poll shows him fading to fourth place with only 14 percent, which is down from 33 percent less than a month ago) and Michele Bachmann’s campaign in chaos as her Iowa chairman defected to Ron Paul yesterday, the former Pennsylvania senator looks to be in excellent shape to win what he called the “conservative primary” over Bachmann and Rick Perry.

Though it is probably a reach to think Santorum could overtake Mitt Romney, who finds himself in first with 25 percent, it is not out of the question in such a volatile environment. Just as possible is for him to leap over Paul, who is currently in second with 22 percent.

While the long term impact of a result next Tuesday that would mirror these poll numbers would probably mean Romney was the inevitable nominee, just by getting himself into third, Santorum ensures his campaign will not end on Jan. 4. Having concentrated all of his meager resources on Iowa, it’s not clear what his next step will be other than that he will have one.

The same can’t be said for Bachmann, who has also gone all in on Iowa. She was already slipping even further back in the polls before this latest setback, but this stab in the back from Kent Sorenson, her state chairman, must be considered the coup de grace for her hopes of getting back into the race. While Rick Perry’s deep pockets will enable him to keep at it for at least a few more weeks even if he has little chance, Bachmann is toast.

An Iowa result that left Romney on top, Paul with considerable support and Santorum as top social conservative left with a chance would set up an interesting three-way battle as the race progresses to Super Tuesday and the later primaries. As was the case in 2008, Paul will not go away. Indeed, despite his extremism and the fact that he has no chance to be the nominee, he will again hang around for as long as he wants even if his chances of winning a primary after Iowa are slim.

As for Santorum, he can put himself in position to be the Mike Huckabee of 2012, giving social conservatives and Tea Partiers a more responsible protest vote against the inevitability of Romney than Paul would provide. The proportional delegate vote in most states is set up to avoid an early sweep for the frontrunner, so there will be no reason for him to drop out, especially since a good showing in Iowa will help him raise money. It probably won’t be enough to stop Romney in the end, but it will give him hope and help keep the race interesting.


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