After every other conservative alternative to Mitt Romney crashed and burned (libertarian Ron Paul is in a category of his own), from the rubble emerges Rick Santorum. But he isn’t just the last man standing. He is the first challenger to be plausibly presidential: knowledgeable, articulate, experienced, of stable character and authentic ideology.
He’d been ignored largely because he appeared unelectable — out of office for five years, having lost his Senate seat in Pennsylvania by a staggering 17 points in 2006.
However, with his virtual tie for first in Iowa, he sheds the loser label and seizes the momentum, meaning millions of dollars’ worth of free media to make up for his lack of money. He’s got the stage to make his case, plus the luck of a scheduling quirk: If he can make it through the next three harrowing primaries, the (relative) February lull would allow him to build a national campaign structure before Super Tuesday on March 6.
Santorum’s electoral advantage is sociological: His common-man, working-class sensibility would be highly appealing to battleground-state Reagan Democrats. His fundamental problem is ideological: He’s a deeply committed social conservative in a year when the country is obsessed with the economy and when conservatism is obsessed with limited government. Republicans, after all, swept the 2010 election on economic concerns and opposition to big government. The tea-party revolution was not about gay marriage. Which is why so much tea-party fervor attaches to Paul.
Santorum did win the tea-party vote in Iowa. But because he was such a longshot, his record did not receive much scrutiny. It will now. He is no austere limited-government constitutionalist. He participated in George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” which largely made peace with big government. Santorum, for example, defends earmarks and supported No Child Left Behind and the Medicare prescription-drug benefit. It’s a perfectly defensible philosophy — but now he’ll be called upon to actually defend it.
Moreover, Iowa is anomalous. It’s not just that the Republican electorate is disproportionately evangelical and thus highly receptive to Santorum’s social conservatism (as it was to Mike Huckabee’s in 2008). It’s that Iowa’s economy is unusually healthy, with only 5.7 percent unemployment, high agricultural prices, and strong real-estate values. Although the economy did rate as a major issue in the entrance poll, in such relative prosperity it registers more as a concern for the nation than as a visceral personal issue — diminishing the impact of Romney’s calling card, economic competence.
For his part, Romney remains preternaturally inert. His numbers, his demeanor, his campaign are flat-line steady: no highs, no lows, no euphoria, no panic.