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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Santorum comes from behind!

Posted By on Thu, Dec 29, 2011 at 4:12 PM

All right, I confess: I just wrote that headline because it's a sophomoric riff on the alternative definition of Santorum. And in fact, I stole it from a comment posted on one of the zillion other online posts -- including some made locally -- expressing surprise and dismay that Rick "Frothy Mix" Santorum is polling well in Iowa. He may even finish third.

Already, Santorum is being taken seriously enough to be drawing fire from fellow Republicans like Rick Perry.

Lefties too are drawing a bead on Santorum, reminding us of his knuckle-dragging views on gay rights, sexual privacy, and a raft of other social issues.

I can't say this uptick in popularity comes as a huge shock.

Back in August, I made light of Santorum's carping about the lack of questions directed his way during televised debates. But I also noted that once the Tea Party fervor began to exhaust itself -- possibly by winter -- Santorum might get another look from the GOP faithful:

He's boring, with a presentation that is pure high-school debate squad. But GOP candidates aren't being rewarded for winning debate points. They're being rewarded for promising to shove their rivals' heads in the toilets and give them swirlies.

... Santorum finds himself being drowned out in the clamor ... beset by a tide of Fox-fueled, soundbite-driven know-nothingism. And that doesn't just threaten a particular policy. It's a threat to the very idea of policy-making itself, as we've seen most recently in the debt ceiling debacle.

In fact, Santorum's only hope may be that if that sort of shenanigan continues, the Tea Party brand will become so tainted that Fox, and the GOP, will need something new to sell.

The market in GOP frontrunners is already plenty volatile, of course. For awhile Palin was the frontrunner. Then it was Donald Trump. Mitt Romney seemed the default choice until Iowa's recent straw caucus. Bachmann now seems on top, though Perry may topple her. After that, who knows? Paul Ryan? Allen West?

It's possible that none of the frontrunners' ratings will hold up into 2012. In that case, the GOP might well come back to a reality-based candidate like Romney. Santorum might get some juice as the thinking man's neanderthal, allowing him a shot at the VP post.

But for now, there's no point in complaining, Rick. You just don't fit into the line-up with the rest of Fox's fall schedule.

So this may be Santorum's chance. Republicans like Trump, Cain, Palin, and Gingrich have basically campaigned through the media, on the basis of celebrity and buzz. Their career arcs, consequently, have risen and fallen as quickly as those of American Idol contestants. But so far, they have dominated the debate so thoroughly that some pundits have wondered whether this represented a sea change in how political campaigns were fought. Santorum has worked the grass roots very hard in Iowa ... but given the power of FOX and talk radio, pundits wondered, were such old-school approaches to politics even relevant any more?

We're going to find out. But one thing about Santorum -- although it's taken months for his campaign to even start catching on, it may not flame out as quickly as the fame of overnight stars like Bachman and Cain.

Yes, the "Google problem" is a challenge -- but literally and figuratively, I suspect the people who vote in primaries tend to have already bookmarked the pages they are interested in.

And name one thing that conservatives are going to hate about Santorum. All the stuff lefties despise about him -- his jackbooted approach to social issues, Muslim- and immigrant-bashing, and Social Security scare tactics -- are exactly what many conservatives will like. And the charges of hypocrisy, or conservative heresy, that have been levied against candidates from Gingrich to Perry, don't really stick to Santorum the same way. Even his worst critics have never accused him of harassing women or cheating on his wife -- accusations that have hurt Gingrich and Cain.

Maybe I'm missing something here -- I confess I've blocked a lot of the Santorum years out of my memory. But when I try to think of sins Santorum has committed against conservatives, the only one I can come up with is his endorsement of Arlen Specter back in 2004 -- when Specter narrowly beat Pat Toomey. That was a problem for a lot of Pennsylvania voters, sure. But is anyone outside the state really going to care? Similar questions apply to the other big charge of hypocrisy that torpedoed Santorum's reelection in 2006: that Santorum didn't really live in Pennsylvania.

Can anyone out there think of a potential dealbreaker for Santorum and GOP voters? I can't. Meanwhile, he could pick up some support from voters who've jilted other contenders. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, for example, has argued that Gingrich's fleeting appeal lay in the GOP's desire to find a debate-team champion worthy of Obama. Santorum, who does well in debates, might qualify. If a jock candidate like Perry can't make the grade, and teacher's pet Gingrich proved unworthy, Santorum might be the guy.

Don't get me wrong: I'd still bet against Santorum being the GOP nominee. As John Nichols of The Nation puts it, Santorum may merely be "a parking place for voters who have a problem with Mitt Romney’s Mormon religion and Ron Paul’s libertarian ideology." Nichols writes that Iowa politicos are joking that "Santorum is Latin for 'Not Romney.'"

Still, that's a step up from the original formulation of that joke: "Santorum -- that's Latin for 'asshole.'" Santorum is right where he wants to be. For the moment.

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