It is not as though Rick Santorum emerged last night out the mist, with revelations breaking out. For months I’ve heard it said that Rick Santorum had the clearest, firmest record on the pro-life side, in the defense of marriage, and that he was solid on national defense. He has also had the capacity to articulate those ends and engage the argument. But the lament was that he was gaining “no traction.”
Tuesday, of course, Santorum emerged from the mist and, for a critical moment at least, has gained traction. And yet nothing new was revealed about Rick Santorum. The strengths that came through were the strengths that had always been there. What was revealed in this clearing of the mist was that the distrust of Mitt Romney runs far deeper, and is far more tenacious, than many of us suspected. Tuesday was a night in which the Republicans in Iowa could have decided that it was time to settle this thing, that it would do no good to have several more months of the candidates damaging each other for the real election to come. But the story of the night was that the Republicans still want to see if they could get a candidate with a sharper, more principled track record as a conservative. My hunch is that Mitt Romney will prove a steadier conservative than people think, bolstered with a critical decency. And yet the Republicans rightly want to see more.
Santorum figures now, of course, to raise more money in a hurry. But apart from that, the showing last night makes two notable additions for him. First, it delivers him from that cloud of defeat he trailed with him after his loss in Pennsylvania. People complained about his “dour” aspect, and his resentment at being pushed to the periphery in attention during the debates. He is in fact remarkably buoyant, but it’s also true that if he had come out of his last election with a wave of success, he would have radiated more confidence in the debates, and looked less desperate to be noticed. Katharine Hepburn said that Ginger Rogers gave Fred Astaire sex appeal. Iowa has restored the glow to Rick Santorum.
Second, with his new prominence, he gains a leverage he was strikingly lacking in the debates: the leverage to put his own issues into play. He was the sponsor in the Senate of the bill to protect the lives of the children who survived abortion. That act has never been enforced by the Bush or Obama administrations. Santorum can appeal to a broad constituency, and raise the question among Republicans of whether they would finally enforce that act. He could build in that way a consensus on that matter for a new Republican administration — and cast a grim light on Barack Obama, the only prominent Democrat in the country who openly opposed the same bill in Illinois. By raising the life issues, along with the issue of marriage, he could press Mitt Romney and make him into a far better candidate. Santorum could push his agenda for “growth,” for cutting back regulations and taxes — and yes, allowing Americans to buy the cars they really want to buy, and keep the light bulbs they’d rather have.
All of that is to say that Santorum has the chance now to play offense with imagination. And he goes with this further advantage: Newt is heading to New Hampshire with rage open and soaring, purposing to do real damage to Mitt Romney. Fasten your seat belts and try to get 3-D glasses. This is going to be a contest with the fireworks that lluminate character.