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Don’t Count Out Santorum in the Coming Conservative Primary

In the wake of Mitt Romney’s decisive victory in Florida, conservatives are faced with a couple of important choices. One is whether they will at some point in the foreseeable future make their peace with the former Massachusetts governor. The other is which of the remaining conservative candidates in the race will they support before they concede Romney is the nominee.

The answer to the first question is obvious. Though some right-wingers may not be able to reconcile themselves to Romney, after a few more primary wins for him, most conservatives will start getting on Mitt’s bandwagon in order to prevent Barack Obama’s re-election. The answer to the second is not so obvious. Though Newt Gingrich claimed Florida demonstrated that the GOP battle is now a two-person race, the lopsided margin in a state that only Gingrich seriously contested will not inspire much confidence in the former speaker’s standing as the leading “not Romney.” Though Rick Santorum finished far behind him in Florida, the weird and graceless manner with which Gingrich did not concede after losing combined with the wave of sympathy for Santorum due to his refusal to join the Florida mudslinging and his daughter’s illness may make the former Pennsylvania senator the more likely conservative standard bearer going forward.

The fact that Gingrich chose not to congratulate the winner in an election in which he was shellacked was actually not the most interesting aspect of his post-Florida speech on national television. Gingrich not only did not acknowledge Romney’s victory other than to note he had been outspent, he also spoke as if he had been the winner, giving a laundry list of actions he would take on his first day in the White House. This disconnect from reality illustrated the dogged determination that has kept him in the race when many believed him dead and buried. But it also reflected the palpable anger and bitterness at the core of Gingrich’s approach.

Gingrich’s sour grapes about losing (which he and his supporters blamed solely on the winner’s negative ads) was, of course, the height of hypocrisy given the nasty ads the former speaker used to win in South Carolina. He also adopted a bizarre class warfare theme as the “people’s candidate” which speaks to his personal resentment more than conservative dissatisfaction. He concluded by comparing himself to the signers of the Declaration of Independence in his typical grandiose self-admiring style. While Gingrich is hoping to channel the anger of Tea Party activists and social conservatives who don’t trust Romney, this sort of display isn’t likely to win many hearts.

By contrast, Santorum can argue, as he did on Tuesday night, Florida was Gingrich’s chance and instead of winning, he allowed himself to become the issue, and the result was disaster. While Gingrich’s performance as a candidate has been variable, Santorum has been consistently positive in the last month. Although he lacks the big donors who have kept the former speaker going, if he can continue to raise money on the Internet from the grass roots, he can continue running while hoping Gingrich will implode.

Instead of trying to besmirch Romney’s personal reputation as Gingrich has done, Santorum has concentrated on health care, the frontrunner’s Achilles’ heel. While the odds of Santorum being able to beat Romney are minimal, they aren’t much smaller than those of Gingrich. In the coming weeks, Santorum has a shot of finishing ahead of Gingrich in several states. This might be the moment when he slips ahead of Gingrich in what will be for all intents and purposes the conservative primary.


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