What the Rick Santorum Sweep Means for Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney will eventually kick the dust of Rick Santorum off his shoes—but at a cost.

By SHARE

Former Sen. Rick Santorum cleaned Mitt Romney's clock Tuesday night and, at the very least, has scrambled the former Massachusetts governor's plan of marching unmolested from Florida to Tampa, as it were.

So has the "narrative," as the TV pundits like to say, changed—again?

Ultimately, no: Romney is still the odds-on favorite to win the nomination. (Stacy McCain has a useful and realistic rundown at the American Spectator of what it would take to stop Romney at this point.)

[See a collection of political cartoons on Mitt Romney]

But proximately, if you will, Romney was damaged Tuesday night. We learned beyond doubt that Romney is a soft cipher when he doesn't wear all his monetary armor. He doesn't defeat his rivals so much as he outspends them.

There can be little doubt, either, that Romney will do what it takes to snuff out Santorum—which means he's going to unleash his Death Star in states like Michigan and Ohio with ads charging that Santorum is a pork-addicted, earmarking Beltway insider. Romney will eventually kick the dust of Santorum off his shoes—but at a cost.

[Read Robert Schlesinger: Get Ready for Buyer's Remorse, Rick Santorum Edition.]

So much of the media coverage of Romney's travails has focused on his uneasy relationship with the conservative base. This is all true, but it misses what may be an even bigger problem for Romney.

There's good reason to believe Romney's relentlessly negative campaigning against former House Speaker Newt Gingrich—and, prospectively, Santorum—is driving up his unfavorables and killing his standing with independents.

These two problems are of course intimately related: The more time and money that Romney is forced to spend fending off attacks on his right flank, the longer he will have to wait to repair his brand in the general-election fight against President Obama.

Equally obviously, Romney can't openly make this plea. He can't say to conservatives, "Hey, stop attacking me now, because I need to start looking moderate soon!"

Romney is in a sort of self-circling death trap: The more mud he's forced to sling at his conservative opponents, the more muddy he looks to the low-information middle. In effect, Romney grows weaker by acting stronger.

It's possible that in August this will all seem a distant memory. Maybe, by then, we'll be looking at a Romney-Santorum unity ticket that strikes fear into David Axelrod's heart.

But it certainly doesn't feel that way now.

  • See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP hopefuls.
  • See a collection of photos of the 2012 GOP hopefuls.
  • Read the U.S. News debate: Can Anything Stop Mitt Romney?