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Again, Why Not Santorum?
He’s a true conservative and he can win.

Rick Santorum speaks in Loveland, Colo., February 4, 2012.

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Missouri’s “beauty contest” primary on Tuesday could be Rick Santorum’s big chance. If he defeats Mitt Romney in that event, as at least one poll shows he is poised to do, the punditocracy and public alike might finally recognize the considerable upside he would offer Republicans as their presidential nominee.

Rick Santorum can win the Republican nomination. Rick Santorum can indeed beat Barack Obama in the fall. And Rick Santorum can and would govern at least as conservatively as Ronald Reagan did.

The evidence of his principled, mainstream conservatism is unambiguous, as is his record of winning long-shot races. What hasn’t been fully understood yet is why, and how, Santorum could win the Republican nomination and the presidency.

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Let’s start with a few underappreciated realities about opinion polls held so far in advance of a general election. First, favorable/unfavorable ratings, along with the level of name identification, are far more important than direct “horse race” numbers. Second, poll “internals,” along with focus-group data if possible, should be interpreted to assess how much growth potential a candidate has, along with what his downside political risks are.

If a candidate has been widely known, and widely disliked, for a long, long time, that candidate has little room for growth. Very few public officials in American history, for instance, have as longstanding a record of horribly unfavorable poll numbers as Newt Gingrich has had for 17 years now. (His particularly dreadful polling problems among women, for instance, seem flat-out insurmountable.) Santorum, on the other hand, is far less well known, so he has a greater chance to move polls in either direction as voters get to know him better. The interesting thing to note here is that he continues to do better in polls the more he is known to the general public. That’s a serious sign of growth potential. Even better, even as the general public was first really looking at him, Santorum already was doing as well or better than Mitt Romney in head-to-head matchups against Obama in the key states of Florida and North Carolina.

Within the GOP, as Bill Kristol argues, Santorum probably has a better chance to defeat Mitt Romney head to head than Gingrich does. Polls bear that out. A number of polls also show that whereas a significant portion of Santorum voters would prefer Romney to Gingrich (this is Gingrich’s polarizing nature again coming into play), the vast majority of Gingrich voters would move to Santorum in a two-man race against Romney. That’s why, one on one, Santorum can beat Romney but Gingrich can’t.

When the “internals” are analyzed, Santorum rates particularly high on personal character, on sincerity, and on steadfastness of principle. Those are bedrock traits that, over a long campaign, help secure a voter’s comfort level with a candidate. A comparison with Reagan is in order here. While Santorum certainly hasn’t shown Reagan’s preternatural communication skills or sheer — almost magical — personal likeability, what matters in a race against a weak incumbent in a weak economy is that voters give themselves the psychological go-ahead for changing something as important as the president. Fear of the unknown runs strong. Even against an absurdly weak Jimmy Carter in 1980, it was only in the last week that voters swung sharply Reagan’s way: They needed reassurance, from watching his demeanor in debates, that he wasn’t the nuclear cowboy the Left tried to portray. Santorum’s palpable decency and sincerity can offer a similar reassurance against Obama. Someone as volatile as Gingrich cannot.

Santorum’s track record also indicates that he wears well over time. Witness his success in the Iowa caucuses, where voters had many months to size up the candidates. Witness his four upset (or at best even-money) victories in Pennsylvania. He doesn’t offer flash and sizzle, but in a long campaign, such as in the media-intensive slog that is a general-election presidential race, his personal and political virtues have time to become more apparent.



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