Rick Santorum Finally on Voters' Radar

Santorum will receive front-runner treatment, including the scrutiny, for the first time.

By SHARE

Rick Santorum has had a great week. Last Tuesday, he won three nominating contests in one night, and yesterday a number of new polls showed that he's tied at the top with longtime front-runner Mitt Romney. He's also beating Romney badly in Romney's home state of Michigan, which holds the next Republican primary on February 28.

Santorum's campaign is stronger than ever, and he has never had more momentum. His favorability ratings are up, specifically in Michigan, where, according to a Public Policy Polling poll, 68 percent of voters have a positive opinion of him compared to Romney's 49 percent.

Likewise, after weeks of talking about unifying the conservative base behind him, Santorum appears to be pulling away with the support of evangelical Christians and others who identify themselves as very conservative. A national Pew Research poll released yesterday shows that 42 percent of Tea Party voters favor Santorum to Romney's 23 percent. Voters identifying themselves as "conservative" and "white evangelical Protestants" also overwhelmingly favor Santorum.

[See pictures of the 2012 GOP candidates]

It's finally time for Rick Santorum's moment in the sun. Unfortunately for Santorum, this nominating cycle has proven that for conservative candidates, sunlight really is the best disinfectant. Voters in the next nominating contests will give a long, hard look at Santorum, and many think that they won't like what they see.

Lara Brown, assistant professor of political science at Villanova University, explains that voters are now in a position to get to know who Rick Santorum is. "Oftentimes, individuals are liked until they are known," she says. "The more you become known, it's not unusual that you'll be liked less."

This logic explains how voters tried out and eventually dumped Romney alternatives like Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich. For each of those candidates, the scrutiny proved to be too powerful.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP hopefuls.]

"Rick Santorum's record will be aired, and a lot of conservatives will be disillusioned that he supported Arlen Specter, a pro-choice Republican in the state of Pennsylvania," Brown continues. "They will also be surprised to find out that Rick Santorum endorsed Romney in 2008."

In addition to his endorsements of Specter and Romney, who Santorum called the "only choice" in 2008, Santorum will have to fight off other demons to win over the electorate. Already, Republicans have begun lining up their attacks against the former Pennsylvania senator. His defeat in 2006, the worst for a Pennsylvania senator in history, is at the center of those attacks. Santorum's suspect views on women in the military, his "Google problem," and his enthusiasm for war with Iran (and possibly China) could also prove concerning for prospective voters.

Wayne Steger, associate professor of political science at DePaul University, explains that Santorum's hardest days are still ahead of him. "Romney's been beat up--Santorum hasn't yet been beat up," he says. "Santorum, for the first time in this whole campaign, is finally on the radar screen for large numbers of people. He'll have to defend himself."