The Corner

Red, White, and Spending Strategically

Foster Friess is usually the first and only name associated with the Red, White, and Blue Fund, a pro-Santorum super PAC. But Friess, a wealthy investor, is the group’s benefactor, not its strategist. That post is held by Nick Ryan, a former Santorum adviser. This week, Ryan is the operative to watch. As Santorum surges in the polls, and a pro-Romney super PAC buys chunks of airtime, politicos are curious about where Ryan will direct his resources. He may not have as much cash as Romney’s super PAC, but where he spends will hint at his strategy.

In an interview, Ryan tells National Review Online that his focus, for the most part, will be on primary states. Santorum has been strong in caucuses this cycle, picking up victories in Iowa, Minnesota, and Colorado. In those contests, retail politics, local-media coverage, and organization were crucial. In three upcoming caucuses — Idaho, North Dakota, and Alaska on March 6 — it’ll likely be a similar scenario. A super-PAC television ad, he reckons, would hardly move the needle. Santorum, he adds, has already stumped in two of those states — Idaho and North Dakota — so the necessity for the super PAC to step in and fill in a gap has largely diminished. To compete with Romney, he says, “We need to pick our spots.”

“We’re never going to have the most money in the world but we can be smarter and more disciplined,” he says. “This is a real slog of contests. We are going to be careful, evaluating every state. The key is to not get sucked into a situation that could get out of control.” Romney forces, he predicts, will be aggressive and may attempt to draw Ryan to spend in countless states. He says he will resist the temptation to respond to every maneuver, to chase every ad buy. “That’s what happened to Newt Gingrich in Florida,” he says. “He went to Florida and got involved in a shootout; the other side had a machine gun and he had a revolver.”

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Ryan wants to avoid making that kind of bet on one state. “We’ll be up very soon in Michigan,” he says. And he is optimistic about Santorum’s chances in the Rust Belt. But he is already looking at other spots on the map, intent on riding any late-February momentum into Super Tuesday. He cites Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Ohio as places to watch. Other March 6 primaries, however, are not really on his radar. Santorum isn’t on the Virginia ballot. And Vermont and Massachusetts, Romney’s home turf, are risky bets. Sure, Santorum could surprise in those Northeast races, he says, but playing on regional television is a costly endeavor.

Ohio, therefore, looms large. Santorum could win Michigan, or he could underperform. There are two weeks to go — a lifetime in politics. Either way, Ryan says the Buckeye State is a place where the super PAC will look to compete. “Ohio is very big state, a swing state; it’s also blue-collar, Midwestern, and next to Pennsylvania,” Ryan says. “It’s expensive but it’s a state where somebody like Rick can do very well. Anybody who is still engaged has to be engaged there.”

“If Romney doesn’t perform well in Michigan, the map is going to get incredibly complicated for him,” Ryan says. Ohio will be a major test for both campaigns, but, as Ryan sees it, the race won’t end there. That’s why he’s already looking at Kansas, Alabama, Wyoming, and Mississippi — four more March contests — as places to potentially air pro-Santorum ads down the line. The southern states are also part of his calculus but more of a variable. “Georgia is the question, just because it’s Gingrich’s home state,” he says. “But Tennessee and Oklahoma, to be very frank, are places where Mitt Romney could finish in third.” A bronze medal in those states could bruise Romney’s electability argument — an appealing notion. “It will probably make sense to be engaged there,” he says.

And what about Friess? He may not be making the political decisions, but his money is integral to Ryan’s plan. “He’s committed,” Ryan says. “He loves Rick and he’s a big supporter and believer. To his credit, he spent his life throwing darts, picking stocks, and he’s done a pretty good job with presidential candidates, too.”

Robert Costa — Robert Costa is National Review's Washington editor and a CNBC political analyst. He manages NR's Capitol Hill bureau and covers the White House, Congress, and national campaigns. ...

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