Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Ian M. MacIsaac: Santorum KO’d in MichiZona, death knell sounds for Republicans' "anyone but Romney" fantasy

  Rick Santorum's primary bid to unseat Mitt Romney in Michigan, the state where he was born and raised, failed Tuesday night as Romney pulled out a 41-38% victory over the insurgent former senator.

  Romney's victory erases any realistic possibility of a Santorum presidential nomination, setting to rest three weeks of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing over Santorum’s emerging status as a frontrunner and Romney’s accompanying slide into the political danger zone.

  Also voting on February 28 was Arizona, where a Romney win was never in question. The west has been traditionally strong for Romney given his Mormon roots, and Arizona gave the former Massachusetts governor a twenty-point victory over Santorum, 47-27%. Gingrich managed only 16%, but nonetheless made a better showing than he did in Michigan, where the former Speaker of the House managed to scrape together a mere 6.5% of the vote, behind even Ron Paul.

  As results came trickling in from Michigan on Tuesday night and it became clear that Tuesday night would not become the upset Santorum was hoping for, he quickly made his way to his Michigan campaign headquarters in Grand Rapids.

  He took the podium before the race in that state had been called, a sure sign a candidate expects defeat in a primary or caucus. (Romney did the same thing in Colorado earlier this month while results were still coming in).

  He gave a speech that was a total 180 from his barnstorming on contraception, God, and college "snob[s]" of earlier this month. Santorum did not mention his traditional fiery social issues once. His speech was almost entirely about the economy, capped at the end with some very Gingrichy schlock about the Declaration of Independence and the spirit of the Revolutionary War, or something like that.

  Santorum's decision to pivot toward the economy came too late. At the critical point in the leadup to the Michigan primary, Santorum bet that he would be able to get Romney off his familiar economic turf onto the social issues--contraception, gay marriage, elitism--and then hit the wealthy northeasterner from the right once he got him there.

  But Santorum failed to understand that the economy isn’t just Romney’s preferred turf; it’s the preferred turf of a majority of American voters in both parties and in every socioeconomic demographic. Santorum's problem is that he simply cannot compete with Romney when the subject is the economy, and his advisers know it even if he does not.

  In this process of elimination-style Republican primary race, the last in a long line of “anyone-but-Romney” candidates—Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich, and finally Santorum—to hold the bulwark against the Massachusetts moderate has been disqualified. All Mitt had to do to win in Michigan was hold the line, and not disqualify himself in turn; he passed his test. Santorum did not pass his.

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  In the aftermath of Santorum’s full sweep on February 7 of the Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado caucuses—the latter two of which Romney won quite handily in 2008—a serious debate began about whether or not Romney could remain credible as the party's front-runner.

  Many began to anticipate the Republican race turning into a Barack-Hillary style fight-to-the-death all the way to the end of the primary season, or worse: the Republicans heading to their convention in Tampa this August without a presumptive nominee. For a minute, it seemed highly likely that Santorum would find a way to deny Romney this nomination, or at least deny him the nomination on Romney's own terms.

  So what went wrong for Santorum in Michigan and Arizona?

  As the former Pennsylvania senator became competitive in Michigan in the wake of his February 7 wins, the primary in the Great Lakes State quickly shifted from Romney’s to lose and instead became Santorum’s to win. It became, in effect, a referendum on the right-wing former senator and whether or not he had what it took to quit fiddling with Romney and actually push him out of first place.

  Santorum managed to clean Romney’s clock three weeks earlier in states like Colorado because at the time everyone was focused on Romney as opposed to Santorum. The caucuses earlier this month were Romney's to lose, so in the lead-up to voting in those states he was the more closely-scrutinized candidate.

  As per usual for the former CEO, under close watch he ended up making a couple of gaffes—“I’m not concerned about the very poor,” etc—and his slip-ups led voters to give Santorum one last shot at the “anyone-but-Romney” gig.

  But then something funny happened. Santorum, in the weeks between the February 7th caucuses and this Tuesday’s primaries, became more than just one last non-Romney. The media, and by extension the voters, began to see him as a candidate of his own, with opinions and positions that had more to them than simply being different from Romney's.

  He began to receive for the first time the close scrutiny that had tripped up Governor Romney and his other major rivals before. Unfortunately for Santorum, he did even worse under supervision. Once voters began to identify him with who he was as opposed to who he wasn’t, his prospects for a Michigan takeover began to crumble just like the prospects of each of the “anyone-but-Romneys” before him.

  Santorum bet that by dusting up all the old Bush-era wedge issues--contraception, God and Satan, gay marriage, rural America versus urban America, perceived liberal elitism--he would be able to reinvigorate the hard-line conservative/Tea Party faction of the Republican Party dispirited by Romney’s candidacy and bring them over to his side wholesale.

  He didn’t realize that, in a post-Great Recession America, who marries who and who believes in what religion just doesn’t hold the weight that it used to. Voters in 2012—all of them,  especially independents—want to hear about more jobs and less debt, or some aspect(s) of one or both, and everything else is secondary. Democratic voters and Republican voters disagree on how we ought to accomplish the two goals, but any candidate of either party not focused on the two stands no chance this year.

  And in the end, Rick Santorum is not focused on anything as mundane as the American economy. His energy is directed toward what he sees as the impending battle for life and death, good and evil, that he's been reading about all his life in what I imagine is the only book he's ever read from cover to cover.I'm surprised he isn't using the actual words "second coming" in his stump speeches. I'm glad he finds contentment in faith, but it is irrelevant to the fact that the man will never, ever be his party's nominee for president, let alone actually win a presidential election.

  Nonetheless, Santorum is not likely to quit the race anytime soon. With lifelong evangelical Christian activist and multimillionaire businessman campaign benefactor Foster Friess funneling SuperPAC money to the Pennsylvanian whenever he needs it, the former senator seems likely to hang on for quite a while.

  For his part, Santorum is the current favorite to win Ohio on the big day--after Georgia, the second-biggest delegate prize--and will probably also pick up Oklahoma. Elsewhere, such as in Virginia, and perhaps Tennessee, Santorum and Gingrich look likely to split the more right-wing vote, making a Romney victory likely where it might not be so certain were it a strictly Romney-Santorum race.

  If Romney continues trending up in Ohio--where Santorum nonetheless remains slightly ahead--the former Governor just may be able to pull out a win there as well. Such an upset would most likely signal an end to Rick Santorum's campaign as well, even if suspension was still weeks away.

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  Where is Newt Gingrich in all this? A campaign suspension seems likely in the aftermath of Super Tuesday. The only state in which Gingrich stands the slightest chance of victory - out of eleven voting on the big day - is the former speaker's home state of Georgia, and even there Santorum is posing a tough challenge.

  With 76 delegates, Georgia is the biggest single prize going this Super Tuesday, although its delegates are awarded proportionally. Romney stands very little chance of winning there, and knows it. His people are therefore rooting for a Gingrich win, hoping that the crotchety former Speaker will be able to deprive Santorum of a nice chunk of delegates before the old adulterer slinks on out of the primary and goes back to hawking books about offshore drilling and Abraham Lincoln.

  Although the two biggest catches on Super Tuesday, Georgia and Ohio, look unlikely for Romney, a large number of western and northeastern small states--Romney's two best regions of the country--are also voting on March 6, and will allow Romney the appearance of an overwhelming victory, even if the delegate spread is not so wide. Alaska, Idaho, North Dakota, Massachusetts, and Vermont all look like sure things for Romney at this point, and together award more than twice as many delegates as Ohio does.

  Even it if doesn't transpire in Ohio, the end of the Santorum campaign will come soon enough. It is only a matter of time before, like the rest of the “anyone-but-Romney” empty suits before him, he succumbs to the overwhelmingly awful reality that Mitt Romney really is the best candidate the Republican Party can come up with in 2012. It’s truly a bad year to be a Republican.

  About the author: Ian MacIsaac is a staff writer for the Capital City Free Press. He is a history major at Auburn University Montgomery in Montgomery, Alabama and former co-editor of the school newspaper, the AUMnibus.

Copyright © Capital City Free Press

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