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The Santorum Scenario’s Day of Decision

The Republican presidential race is still at the stage where it is possible to spin theories about how frontrunner Mitt Romney can be toppled. Those scenarios aren’t particularly likely, but if there’s any credence to them at all, a couple of things are going to have to happen today to put a dent in the frontrunner’s armor. Newt Gingrich’s southern strategy requires him to survive a long wait until the next GOP debate scheduled for February 22 and to win big on Super Tuesday on March 6. But that’s a fairy tale for another day. Today’s long shot involves a Rick Santorum win in Minnesota and/or Missouri in order to elevate the former Pennsylvania senator to the position of the leading “non-Romney” as well as the standard bearer for conservatives in the race. But unlike Gingrich’s plans, which are undermined by the former speaker’s open hatred for Romney, the Santorum opening today is no fantasy.

The Minnesota caucus appears to be Santorum’s for the taking with the only current published poll of the state showing him with a narrow lead. And the Pennsylvanian has a real chance of knocking off Romney in the non-binding primary in Missouri. Though Romney is set to roll to a big win in Colorado, if Santorum can pull off upsets in at least one and possibly two of the other two states to vote today, it may not stop Romney but it could put a spike in Gingrich and enable Santorum to emerge as his main challenger.

The electorate in Minnesota seems to resemble that of Iowa where Santorum got his only victory so far with evangelicals and social conservatives dominating. That presents the perfect opening for Santorum, who is the one GOP hopeful most identified with the Christian right. Even Romney’s camp seems to acknowledge they have an uphill battle there. Romney’s chief surrogate Tim Pawlenty is going all out to try and convince Minnesota Tea Partiers that an earmark-loving big government conservative such as Santorum isn’t for them. But the former Minnesota governor — who seems much more comfortable roughing up Santorum than he was attacking Romney during his time in the presidential contest — has a difficult task convincing Minnesotans to back the frontrunner.

Missouri is another great opportunity for Santorum because he largely has had the state to himself. As was the case in Virginia, Gingrich’s incompetent and chaotic campaign wasn’t up to the task of assuring their candidate a place on the ballot.  And Romney has decided that because no delegates are up for grabs in this beauty contest, it’s not worth his time when other states offer bigger prizes. So that leaves Santorum with a chance to score in another state where conservatives could bring him victory. Wins in Minnesota and Missouri will help Santorum raise money and also discourage those thinking of pouring more cash down the Gingrich sinkhole.

As I’ve been writing the last couple of weeks, Santorum may not have fared particularly well in the last few states to vote, but he has burnished his image as a decent politician by staying out of the mudslinging that has characterized an increasingly bitter battle between Gingrich and Romney. That, along with the sympathy that was generated by the illness of Santorum’s little daughter Bella, has allowed the public to see a side of the senator that has often been obscured by his hard line stands on social issues: his essential decency. Too often he has allowed himself to come off as a public scold hounding the country on issues relating to abortion and gays and potentially alienating even some who might agree with him. But lately, he has seemed like the nicest guy left in the GOP field, and that is not a negligible quality.

Of course, even if today works out exactly as Santorum plans, that won’t necessarily do much to derail Romney as Santorum isn’t likely to best the frontrunner in many states that have yet to hold elections. And if Romney can steal Minnesota and Missouri from him without even trying hard then that will be the end of even the faintest hope of a Santorum surge. But if he does prevail, then we may be hearing a lot more from Santorum in the next couple of months.


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