Commentary Magazine


Contentions

The Gingrich-Santorum Alliance

As the Republican race heads into what may be a fateful week for the contenders, one of the most curious aspects of the competition is the tacit alliance that seems to exist between Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. The two rivals seemed to be very cozy with each other during the debates this past weekend, with Gingrich frequently praising Santorum and the latter gratefully acknowledging the praise. Even more than that, the pair also seems to be working in tandem toward a common goal of knocking down frontrunner Mitt Romney. To note their highly compatible strategies is not to allege anything underhanded or that the two are overtly coordinating their efforts. But there’s no denying that in the last couple of weeks as Gingrich sank from a frontrunner to an also-ran, he began adopting a benevolent tone toward his former House colleague even as his bitterness against Romney was exploding.

So far, one might conclude the attempt to double team Romney is working. Gingrich’s nasty attacks on Romney (revenge for Romney’s takedowns of the former speaker in Iowa) have freed up Santorum to take the high road. But the problem for both Gingrich and Santorum is that if either has any chance to overtake Romney, it will require the other to drop out soon.

This is not the first time competitors seemed to work together. After the collapse of a once-promising effort in Iowa in 2008, the only reason for Fred Thompson to stay in the race as late as South Carolina was to help split the conservative vote to enable his friend John McCain to eke out narrow primary wins that quickly won him the nomination. Similarly, some conservatives thought Mike Huckabee stayed in the 2008 race as long as he did so as to prevent a one-on-one showdown between McCain and Romney. But no matter what Thompson and Huckabee’s motives really were, their help for McCain didn’t seem quite as obvious as the Santorum-Gingrich love fest at the last two debates.

Yet even if we assume Gingrich’s bizarre use of an Occupy Wall Street attack from the left on Romney will cut into the former Massachusetts governor’s support in both New Hampshire and South Carolina, so long as he stays in the race along with a faltering Rick Perry, it’s hard to see how Santorum benefits. There are only so many conservative votes to be won, and if Gingrich is going to be still fighting hard for them, Santorum’s chances of placing second or third in New Hampshire or winning in South Carolina are hurt.

By the same token, if Gingrich still seriously entertains a hope of winning the nomination, it’s difficult to understand why he would be throwing bouquets at Santorum, as the latter’s growing support is the greatest obstacle to keeping his own candidacy alive.

After Iowa, there is little doubt Santorum is the most viable conservative in the race even if many Tea Partiers profess to dislike him. But if he has a chance to overtake Romney (and right now that chance must be considered slim), he’s going to need to beat Romney somewhere soon and South Carolina may be his best and perhaps only opportunity. However, Gingrich’s continued presence in the race, even if it brings with it a well-funded assault on Romney, may make that impossible.