Get Ready for Buyer's Remorse, Rick Santorum Edition

Rick Santorum will fall from this rise in the Midwest, but he will bring Mitt Romney down with him.

By SHARE

We've had two—or is it three?—helpings of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, more iterations of former Gov. Mitt Romney than you can shake $10,000 at, so should anyone be surprised that we're getting a second dose of Rick Santorum? The former Pennsylvania senator scored a political hat trick with convincing victories in Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota last night. Sure Missouri was a beauty contest and Colorado and Minnesota didn't actually select delegates, but neither did Iowa and no one said that set of caucuses was meritless.

Now Santorum must accomplish the 2012 political equivalent of defying gravity. For if there has been one rule in this chaotic nomination race, it is that what goes up must come down.

[Check out editorial cartoons about the 2012 GOP hopefuls.]

As I wrote in my column this week:

In the wake of Mitt Romney's convincing victories in Florida on Tuesday and Nevada on Saturday, perhaps the GOP will rally to the former Massachusetts governor and embrace him in a manner which they have resisted thus far.

But through the first month of primary contests, Republican voters haven't been much about embracing. They've been too busy running away from candidates. Romney's New Hampshire victory, for example, sparked pronouncements that with two wins under his belt (the Iowa caucuses not yet having been retroactively awarded to Rick Santorum), he was marching to the nomination. This prompted a scramble away from Romney, right into the waiting arms of Newt Gingrich.

The former House speaker then easily won South Carolina and gave Republicans another acute case of buyer's remorse. …

So now maybe GOP voters will settle in with Romney for the long haul. Or maybe they'll look again at Romney and see a transparently inauthentic conservative of convenience with a propensity for mind-boggling gaffes ("I'm also unemployed," and "Corporations are people, my friend," and "Well, the banks aren't bad people," and so on.)

And as surely as Mitt Romney rose, bringing new pronouncements of his inevitability, he fell. Conservatives still don't like him.

[See political cartoons about Romney.]

But can Santorum avoid a buyer's remorse come-down? There are a number of factors weighing against him, starting with money and organization. It seems likely that Team Romney will turn its focus on Santorum the way it did on Gingrich after South Carolina (though as of this morning, Gingrich remained in the Mitt-bot's sights). As Santorum noted Tuesday night, "Tonight we had an opportunity to see what a campaign looks like when one candidate isn't outspent five- or ten-to-one by negative ads impugning their integrity and distorting their record." Does anyone think that Santorum will get another clear shot where he isn't heavily outspent and drilled with negative ads?

As National Journal's Alex Roarty writes:

Romney won't have to look hard for way[s] to attack Santorum, whose 16-year career in Washington provides an array of easy targets. The former governor has already criticized his support for congressional earmarks, and Santorum will also be forced to explain his 2004 endorsement of then moderate Republican Sen. Arlen Specter against a Republican challenger (Specter later switched into the Democratic Party). 

More broadly, Romney can argue his business background makes him better suited to turn around the country than a career politician--a tactic that helped him overcome Gingrich.

We might also be reminded that Santorum's last act in public life before running for president was receiving a historic drubbing from the voters of Pennsylvania, losing his seat by 18 points.

As for Romney, he must feel rather like Michael Corleone in the otherwise forgettable Godfather: Part III, who laments, "Just when I thought I was out … they pull me back in." No pivot to the center and the general election for Mitt. He'll need to turn his focus back to figuring out how to placate his own party, possibly with a hard tack to the right on the social issues which (a) have been Santorum's bread and butter and (b) are suddenly at the heart of the national political conversation (birth control and gay marriage). This is not the stuff of which winning general election candidates are made.

  • Ken Walsh's Washington: Rick Santorum's Triple-Header Turns Race Upside Down—Again
  • See a collection of photos of the 2012 GOP hopefuls.
  • Boris Epshteyn: Mitt Romney Must Stay Focused During the Primary Season Dog Days