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Can the Santorum Surge Last?

Mitt Romney’s narrow wins in the non-binding Maine caucus and the CPAC straw poll changed the topic of conversation among Republicans — at least for a day — about Rick Santorum’s surge into contention in the GOP presidential race. But a Public Policy Polling survey released the same day ought to provide as much encouragement to Santorum’s backers as Romney’s fans took from Maine and CPAC. Feeding off his wins in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri earlier in the week, the PPP poll showed Santorum taking an astounding 38-23 percentage point lead over Romney, with Gingrich at 17 percent and Ron Paul trailing with 13 percent.

National tracking polls have been volatile throughout the race, giving each of the various flavors of the month like Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich their moments in the lead. So Santorum’s spike in popularity shouldn’t be taken as proof  the Republican race has been fundamentally altered by recent events. Nevertheless, the poll does illustrate the willingness of Republicans to embrace an alterative to Romney even at this stage of the race. It also demonstrates that Santorum’s popularity and positive image — at least among GOP voters — could prove troublesome to the frontrunner.

The breakdown of the poll shows Santorum has supplanted Gingrich as the leading “non-Romney” conservative competing for the Republican nomination. He has huge leads among Tea Partiers and evangelicals, both of which were in Gingrich’s column earlier in the race.

But though one shouldn’t take a national poll such as this all that seriously — especially one conducted in the days immediately after Santorum’s February 7 hat trick — the net favorability ratings of the candidates the poll reveals do provide a fascinating insight into the state of the race right now.

Romney’s net favorability is down considerably from PPP’s last poll in December. At that time, 55 percent of those surveyed viewed him positively, while only 31 percent saw him negatively. Now those numbers are 44-43. Gingrich’s numbers are even worse, with more negatives than positives by a 44-42 percent margin, down from a 60-28 net positive in December.

By contrast, Santorum’s favorability is soaring, with 64 percent seeing him positively while only 22 percent of Republicans view him negatively. That’s up considerably from his 49-30 net positive rating in December when he was languishing among the second tier of GOP candidates.

The favorability ratings are the product of two points I’ve written about before.

The first factor is Santorum’s refusal to join in the mudslinging as Romney and Gingrich tore each other apart. Santorum’s tactic of opposing the nasty attacks the other two have made at each other has made him appear to be the nicest guy left standing in the race.

The other is the attention given to the illness of Santorum’s disabled daughter Bella. The story generated sympathy for Santorum, but it goes deeper than that. It enabled voters to see Santorum as something more than an angry, public scold hounding the nation with his views on social issues. It highlighted his life as a devoted family man and a person of faith and also softened his image.

Santorum’s stances on social issues and his image as a scourge of the gay community don’t really factor into these numbers, as this is a Republican sample. The problem for Santorum is if he became the nominee, it’s not clear whether he could withstand the assault on him from liberals and the gay community. Though Romney’s standing in head-to-head polls with President Obama has declined in recent days, he must still be considered more electable than Santorum.

But that’s a battle for another day. Right now, it’s the GOP nomination that’s at stake, and Santorum’s positives are such that it is impossible to dismiss the possibility his surge can be sustained. Victories for Romney in Arizona and Michigan might restore some order to the GOP race later in the month. But if he falters, the affection that Santorum has engendered among Republicans could derail the frontrunner.


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