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Has Romney Snatched Defeat From the Jaws of Victory?

Rick Santorum’s stunning sweep of the Tuesday primary/caucus schedule has altered a race many of us thought had finally and irrevocably swung the way of Mitt Romney after his big wins in Florida and Nevada. Romney’s camp will try to spin his defeats in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado as just a momentary bump on the road to Tampa, and there are good reasons to believe he will still eventually win. But Santorum’s hat trick comes at a moment when even conservatives were starting to buy into the idea that the former Massachusetts governor was the inevitable nominee. Moreover, the reason why Romney lost undermines the basic rationale of his candidacy.

While Romney’s comment on CNN last week about not wanting to help the poor was taken out of context, it still betrayed the candidate’s inability to connect with ordinary voters. He not only doesn’t talk like a conservative. He comes across as out of touch with their concerns and those of everyday citizens. Romney’s technocratic approach to problem solving may seem to be ideal to help fix an economic downturn, but a man who makes such gaffes cannot be said to be a lock to beat a Democratic incumbent who will ruthlessly demagogue the Republicans via class warfare tactics. Because Romney’s number one asset is his electability, the remark about the poor, which came at a moment when the national economic statistics seemed to brighten, made him look like the wrong man at the wrong moment. Yesterday’s results must leave Republicans wondering whether Santorum has the ability to take advantage of his wins and if Romney’s strengths are sufficient to overcome this setback.

Romney’s loyalists will argue that Santorum is unelectable in November and his lack of a national organization and money still makes him a long shot for the nomination. There is also the fact that even if Santorum has definitely eclipsed a fading Newt Gingrich as the leading “not Romney” in the race, the former speaker is so driven by ambition and personal hatred of the frontrunner he won’t consider dropping out. Gingrich wasn’t on the ballot in Missouri’s non-binding primary and barely competed in Minnesota and Colorado. But even if it now seems unlikely he can rebound in March with wins on Super Tuesday, his continued presence in the race will divide the conservative vote to Romney’s advantage. Indeed, Romney will still be favored in Arizona and Michigan later this month and might even squeeze out a victory in Maine this week.

But by losing the Feb. 7 trifecta, Romney snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Had Romney won yesterday, he could have knocked off Santorum and solidified the narrative of his inevitability. By losing in Colorado where he was heavily favored, Romney has set up Santorum to be a dangerous rival.

Unlike both Romney and Gingrich, Santorum has become a better candidate as the race has gone on. Though Romney reaped the benefits of Gingrich’s implosion in the debates before the Florida primary, it was actually Santorum who won those encounters on the issues. Santorum’s appeal to working class voters may appall some conservatives, but it puts him in a good position to exploit Romney’s weaknesses.

Even more important, he has carved out a unique niche in this campaign as the one candidate who won’t sling mud at his rivals. While Romney and Gingrich have appeared ruthless and cynical by their willingness to say anything about each other, Santorum has been humanized by the campaign as voters got to know his family and to sympathize with him as the father of a sick and disabled child.

It should be remembered the only reason why Romney was able to become the frontrunner was the failure of more viable conservatives to get into the race or to put themselves forward as plausible candidates. Santorum seemed the most unlikely of all the contenders to get this far. But he is a genuine conservative on social issues and has the best grasp of foreign policy of any of those still standing. Though he is vulnerable on his record of support for earmarks and spending while in the Senate, should Romney attempt to “carpet bomb” him with negative ads in the upcoming primaries it will do more damage to himself than Santorum.

Santorum is still a long way from being considered a likely nominee, but his victories have changed this race from a cakewalk for a Romney to a genuine fight in which the frontrunner is favored but not certain to win. If Romney is to ultimately prevail, he will have to improve his game in the coming weeks and months. If he doesn’t, he may wind up looking back to this past week as the moment he blew the nomination.


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