Rick Santorum's Sweep Means It’s Still Anybody’s Race

The GOP finds itself in the unusual position of not being sure who its nominee will eventually be.

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Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum swept the "mini-Tuesday" contests in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri, much to the surprise of those following the GOP presidential primaries. These back-to-back-to-back victories breathed new life into a campaign which seemed a fool's errand when it began, with few people thinking Santorum had the ability to go the distance except as a ticket-balancing vice presidential possibility from an electorally important state.

The ex-senator, who was last on the ballot in 2006—a re-election bid he lost to Democrat Bob Casey, Jr.—has strong support among the social conservatives that have long been the bulwark of the GOP national electoral strength. Economic conservatives and libertarians find him less exciting. By coming out on top in the Minnesota and Colorado contests—Missouri had no delegates at stake—Santorum has moved into second place among the GOP presidential hopefuls, with 76 delegates pledged to him out of the just over 1,100 that are needed to win the nomination in Tampa later this year.

[Vote: Can Rick Santorum Keep His Momentum Going?]

Santorum's victories were clearly a blow to the aspirations of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has been the anointed front-runner for most the cycle and who won the Colorado and Minnesota contests by large margins just four years ago. Tuesday's results continue to chip away at what most Romney supporters—especially conservatives—like to tout as his principle asset: his electability.

Romney's problem is that each time he manages to pull ahead, as he did after the Florida primary, he stumbles—as he did last week when, to deflect attention from his statement, taken out of context, that he did not care about the poor, he proposed indexing the federal minimum wage to inflation. As many economists will agree, this is a ruinous proposal that would actually increase unemployment—particularly among new entrants to the workforce and teenagers—because it will raise the cost to employers of hiring them. More and more it looks like Romney's economic playbook resembles the one used by former President George H. W. Bush, who raised taxes despite his firm commitment not to, a move that ruined his presidency and badly damaged the national GOP brand. The "noblesse oblige" approach to governing that Bush exhibited and Romney seems to embrace does not work in a vital, dynamic democratic system like ours.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Mitt Romney]

On the other hand it is possible to read too much into Santorum's recent victories. The GOP primary electorate continues to register its concerns about Romney but neither Romney nor former House Speaker Newt Gingrich made a strong effort to win those states. Santorum did—and can now reap the benefits of his hard work. It is not likely, however, that the results will change the race all that much. The GOP finds itself in the unusual position of not being sure who its nominee will eventually be, a position it has not been in since 1952. In most years it has been generally obvious almost a year out who would carry the banner in the presidential contest. Not this time. Among the candidates remaining in the field it's still almost anybody's race.

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