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If Romney fails, Rick Santorum is GOP's first in line for 2016

April 11, 2012|By David Horsey
  • David Horsey/Los Angeles Times
David Horsey/Los Angeles Times

Rick Santorum, the Republican asterisk candidate of 2011, gave Mitt Romney a serious run for his abundant money in 2012. When he suspended his campaign on Tuesday, a few political pundits opined that Santorum never had a serious chance at winning the nomination anyway because he was too right wing -- which only shows how obtuse some pundits can be.

Santorum is not too extreme for today's Republicans. In a party that is at least 50% composed of Glenn Beck fans, gay-bashers, paranoid conspiracy theorists, Obama birth certificate fantasizers, antiabortion zealots, take-back-America culture warriors and get-religion-into-government theocrats, he is mainstream.

His run in 2012 failed for other reasons:

• He did not have enough money and, thus, could never deflect the pounding hammer of Mitt Romney’s negative attacks.

• Worse, he didn’t have the organization. Santorum missed getting on the ballot in several key states and, for lack of a comprehensive campaign structure, could not capitalize on opportunities in several others.

• Newt Gingrich split the right wing vote. In almost every one of the early primaries, the combined Santorum/Gingrich total far exceeded the vote for Romney. In places like South Carolina, Santorum and Gingrich were delivering nearly identical messages to social conservatives. If Santorum had gotten them all to himself, he would still be in the race.

• Two simple twists of fate cost him big time -- being proclaimed the winner in Iowa too late and peaking in Michigan too early. If Romney had not erroneously been proclaimed the Iowa winner, Santorum’s rise would have come a crucial two weeks sooner. If his lead in Michigan had not faded, Santorum would have had an upset victory in Romney’s birth state. Either one or both of these switches could have dramatically altered the campaign scenario.

• Romney was willing to say and do anything to win. He allowed his campaign and "super PAC" to carpet the airwaves with ads that made all manner of nasty and bogus allegations against Santorum. Meanwhile, he stretched himself to adopt a newly-minted set of right-wing beliefs to undercut Santorum’s claim to being the only true conservative in the race.

Together, all these factors doomed Santorum’s campaign. Arguably, it might have helped if he had stuck to his appealing, working class economic pitch that contrasted with Romney’s Wall Street insider persona, instead of harping on abortion, birth control and the evils of secularism. Still, being a culture warrior helped him more than it hurt him among Republican voters.

At 53, Santorum is a young man, politically speaking. If Romney loses in November, Santorum could have the inside track for the nomination next time. In 1980, 1988, 2000, 2008 and now this year, the Republican winner turned out to be the man who came in second in the previous round of contested primaries.

So, in the event of an Obama victory, look for Santorum to spend the next couple of years raising money, getting better organized and finding every opportunity to tell his fellow red-blooded conservatives that 2016 will be the year to finally follow their hearts and nominate one of their own.

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