For Rick Santorum, Missouri’s primary is likely his last opportunity to regain momentum.
Newt Gingrich isn’t on the ballot, thanks to his campaign’s decision not to file. (Missouri’s caucuses, held beginning in mid-March, will determine the state’s delegates, so the primary is a non-binding “beauty contest.”) That leaves Tuesday’s primary as a showdown between Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, and Santorum.
Missouri GOP strategist Jeff Roe calls the election a “referendum on Rick Santorum,” saying the Missouri primary is a test for Santorum to see if he “can match his narrative that he’s the one who can beat Romney and consolidate conservatives.”
“This is a chance for him to prove his narrative is true,” Roe says, adding that he thinks Santorum needs to either clear the 50 percent mark in the state or beat Romney by double digits to make his case.
While one poll shows Santorum ahead right now, it doesn’t give him that kind of win. A Public Policy Polling survey conducted late last month showed Santorum in the lead at 45 percent, 11 points ahead of Romney and 32 points ahead of Paul. His net favorability/unfavorability margin among Missouri Republicans was 42 points. That gives him a significant edge over Gingrich (plus 20 points), Romney (plus 10 points), and Paul (negative 29 points).
“I think Santorum will carry Missouri,” predicts Missouri Republican strategist James Harris, noting the state’s conservative and pro-life leanings. Another factor that could boost Santorum: In southern Missouri, evangelicals form a considerable chunk of the GOP base.
Norm Baxter, an RNC committeeman from Chesterfield Township in St. Louis County, agrees that there is new interest in Santorum in his conservative-leaning area. “A growing number of conservatives in this part of the state have shown a real interest in Santorum, and they think that he brings the conservative credentials that we need,” Baxter says. “I can sense the momentum behind him is beginning to increase and you’re seeing a surge for him.”
Meanwhile, Santorum is buoyed by the fact that he’s the only candidate to make a play for Missouri. Red, White, and Blue Fund, the super PAC behind Santorum, is running ads. Unlike Romney and Paul, Santorum has campaigned in the Show Me State in recent days.
If Santorum does win Missouri, the challenge will be for him to present it as a meaningful win. The reason the primary has nothing to do with choosing delegates is that in 2010 the Republican National Committee required certain states, including Missouri, not to select their delegates before March. Last year the Republican legislature passed a bill that would have moved the primary from February to March, but Democratic governor Jay Nixon vetoed it (not because of the primary-date switch, he said, but because of other provisions in the bill).
So the party switched to caucuses, which do not require legislative sanction, and scheduled them for March. But a bill to eliminate the February primary failed on a tie vote, and the result was that Missouri taxpayers are being forced to fund a $7 million election that is essentially a state-run opinion poll.
Missouri politicos doubt that the caucus results will mirror the primary results, or that there will even be any attempt to make them do so. Six weeks is an eon in this primary cycle, and some of the candidates may have dropped out by then. Even if they all remain in the race, the fact that caucusgoers can support Gingrich is sure to affect the final results.
But for Santorum, struggling to make the case that he’s a more viable not-Romney candidate than Gingrich, Missouri still offers a valuable opportunity.
“When we go head to head with Governor Romney, we can beat him,” Santorum said in Missouri on Friday, according to NBC News. “When Speaker Gingrich goes head to head with Governor Romney, he can’t.”
“The polls show it,” Santorum added, “and it will show on Tuesday.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.