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At CPAC, Santorum a Threat to Romney

Watching Rick Santorum’s reception at the Conservative Political Action Conference today, it’s hard to believe he was polling in the single digits just a few months ago. He’s clearly the base favorite at the moment; hundreds waited in line to see him speak this morning. I’ve seen few CPAC attendees wearing pro-Newt stickers, and none wearing pro-Romney ones. But pro-Santorum buttons and stickers are everywhere.

The difference between Santorum and the previous flavor-of-the-week candidates is that Santorum has the substance to make it to the nomination: he’s serious and knowledgeable (check out his articles on Iran, which Foreign Policy summarized here), he’s consistent, and he’s disciplined. Sure, he’s made his fair share of controversial comments, especially on gay marriage. But when he says something controversial, it’s always something he strongly believes in. It’s never said for the sake of bomb-throwing or pandering or out of ignorance.

Santorum’s CPAC speech should chill Romney to the core in a way that Newt Gingrich’s candidacy never could. Unlike Newt, Santorum is a real threat. Whereas Romney can’t relate to the base, Santorum is the base — as he told CPAC, “we’ve worked together in the vineyards.” And he has the stained hands to prove it.

Framing issues in terms of morals, values and “vision,” Santorum presented a clear contrast with Romney today. He vowed to provide opportunities to the “very poor” (an unmistakable swipe at Romney’s recent gaffe about not caring for the poor), blasted Obamacare, and declared that the election is about “really big things, more than just the economy.” In other words, he broke the unofficial code of silence over social issues that has largely marked the Republican primary so far.

Romney will have a hard time responding to these challenges. He’s not a movement conservative, and he’s not exceptionally charismatic. He also has a difficult time explaining and defending conservative values. While he’s almost certainly more electable than Santorum in a general election — the social issues would be a real problem for Santorum with independent voters — Romney will find it difficult to compete with the former Pennsylvania senator among conservative voters. And unlike Gingrich, Santorum is far less likely to shoot himself in the foot. After watching Santorum at CPAC, you can bet the Romney campaign is already starting to get nostalgic for Newt.



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