Here’s a bit of old news: Rick Santorum is committed to staying in the GOP presidential race. Yet, from his perspective, his survival strategy is misunderstood, and in the coming days, he hopes to reframe his candidacy.
As Santorum told reporters at a Monday breakfast, his persistence is not tethered to success in specific primaries. Instead, he is betting his candidacy on an argument — that he, not Mitt Romney, is best equipped to battle Obamacare.
Speaking later that day on the steps of the Supreme Court, which is hearing arguments on the health-care law, Santorum argued that Romney is “uniquely disqualified” to challenge the individual mandate, a core legislative component.
“He defends Obamacare at the state level,” Santorum said, referencing Romney’s health-care reforms in Massachusetts, which include a similar provision. “It just doesn’t wash and it won’t wash in the general election.”
Santorum’s barbs are part of a daily effort by his advisers to link Romney to the president’s controversial law. Beyond Santorum’s public remarks, they have issued a flurry of press releases and videos.
The theme of the dispatches has been consistent. “Romney admits Romneycare = Obamacare,” screams one headline. Another e-mail calls Romney’s program a “heavyweight burden” on the Bay State economy.
“This is a campaign within the campaign,” says Alice Stewart, a top Santorum staffer. Santorum, she says, may lack Romney’s organization and finances, but if he can convince conservatives on this point, he could surge.
“It is the mega-issue,” Santorum told reporters at Monday’s breakfast. GOP leaders, he complained, are willfully ignoring Romney’s vulnerability. “It’s Wizard of Oz time,” he said. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”
Santorum also played down his chances of winning the Wisconsin primary, which will be held on April 3, and barely discussed the late-April primary in his home state, Pennsylvania. He insists that the outcome of those contests, while important, will not dictate whether he will carry on.
Moving forward, Santorum’s stated rationale is to save the GOP from settling for Romney. By hammering the former governor on health care between now and the August convention, he aims not only to weaken his chief competitor, but to alarm Republicans about the potential disaster ahead.
Regardless of where the Supreme Court lands on the law, Santorum is convinced that, alongside the economy, health care and a broader concern about freedom will be the critical issues during the general election. Nominating Romney, he worried, would take the latter issues off the table.
Santorum advisers point to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll — which showed 47 percent of Americans disapproving of Obamacare — as an example of the enduring national anxiety about the law. Further, they say, 51 percent of independent voters, those crucial swing voters, disapprove of it.
“If we run this campaign, which I will, on Obamacare, we make this the central issue of the campaign, and if we’re successful, there is no doubt that Obamacare will be repealed in one form or another,” Santorum told the crowd outside the high court. “[Romney] can’t make it the argument, because if he makes it the argument, the Obama machine will turn it right back on him.”
Speaking with CNN on Monday, Romney, who leads in numerous national polls, shrugged off Santorum’s attacks. “I’m not going to worry too much about what Rick is saying these days,” he said, and he pledged to repeal Obamacare.
On this front, Romney has been boosted by recent comments by tea-party favorites, such as Senators Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) and Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), who have defended Romney’s ability to separate his state-level decisions from his national positions on federal power and freedom.
Santorum isn’t ready to acquiesce. On the trail, he continues to lead his speeches with health-care talk and he spends ample time arguing that Romney is weak. At a Tuesday town-hall meeting in Beaver Dam, Wis., he urged Badger State Republicans to resist Romney’s wooing.
“Don’t compromise your principles,” Santorum said, according to the Watertown Daily Times. “What’s at stake in this country is freedom.”
Santorum’s aides spent much of Tuesday continuing their media and online campaign. Outside the campaign, the Red, White, and Blue Fund, a pro-Santorum super PAC, launched a new television ad in Wisconsin that asks conservatives if they can “trust” Romney to repeal Obamacare.
For a campaign that is struggling to win a significant number of delegates, this message barrage is its latest, and perhaps final, tactical gambit. In the midst of the Supreme Court deliberations, Santorum needs to emerge as the anti-Obamacare champion. If he can do that, his aides are confident that he can tap into the lingering Romney skepticism among tea-party conservatives. If not, and Romney isn’t tripped up, it’ll be a rocky road to Tampa.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.