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Why Santorum’s Surge Has Staying Power

The latest polls out of Iowa confirm two things as we head into the caucuses: Ron Paul has peaked, and his support is now on the downswing. And Rick Santorum is surging, going from single-digits to third place in a matter of days.

If the Des Moines Register survey holds true, Santorum may just be getting started:

The poll, conducted Tuesday through Friday, shows support at 24 percent for Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts; 22 percent for Paul, a Texas congressman; and 15 percent for the surging Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.

But the four-day results don’t reflect just how quickly momentum is shifting in a race that has remained highly fluid for months. If the final two days of polling are considered separately, Santorum rises to second place, with 21 percent, pushing Paul to third, at 18 percent. Romney remains the same, at 24 percent.

On its face, this would seem to make Santorum the latest of the “flavor of the month” candidates, following the rapid rise-and-fall of Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. The difference is that Santorum may have more staying power than the others.

The previous not-Romney’s all looked fine from a distance, but withered under scrutiny. Santorum, in contrast, has grown more impressive as the race has progressed. Yes, he has plenty of his own flaws, and they shouldn’t be glossed over. But so far, his baggage doesn’t seem to be of the fatal sort. There’s no history of adultery, no sexual harassment charges, no problems with articulation, no shoot-from-the-hip attitude. Santorum’s debate performances have been excellent, and he’s shown a notable grasp of foreign policy issues. He also has impeccable social conservative credentials.

There are legitimate questions of electability; those can’t be diminished. Santorum is a bete noir to the left when it comes to social issues, which means that any imaginable glob of mud that can be chucked at him will be chucked – and that could make it very difficult for him to appeal to independent and centrist voters. That’s not to say that there aren’t certain positions conservatives must hold absolutely firm on, even if they enrage the left. But when considering whether to support Santorum, conservatives will need to decide whether opposition to gay marriage and birth control are issues they would risk dying on the hill for.