OpinionTop of the Ticket

Likeable Rick Santorum attracts independents Romney is losing

ElectionsPolitics and GovernmentRick SantorumMitt RomneyRepublican PartyBarack ObamaHerman Cain

Is Mitt Romney the Republicans' man of destiny or will Rick Santorum finally get his moment in the sun?

You remember Rick Santorum, the guy who, in last summer’s Republican debates, was placed at the end of the row near the exit sign and never got asked any questions because Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain were so much more weirdly entertaining. Well, Santorum campaign staffers are playing up recent polls that suggest their candidate could beat President Obama.

A new GOP-leaning Rasmussen poll posits a general-election match-up in which Santorum beats the president by 1 percentage point, 45% to 44%, while Romney falls short by 4 percentage points and Newt Gingrich trails by eight. More immediately, other polls suggest that the former Pennsylvania senator may do well in today’s Minnesota caucuses and the nonbinding primary in Missouri.

National likeability surveys among independent voters, who are less driven by ideology and more inclined toward someone they’d want as fishing buddy, also favor Santorum, especially in swing states such as Ohio and Missouri. Among the same folks, Romney’s favorability rating is dropping fast, though it hasn’t reached the level of loathing independent voters have for Gingrich.

Santorum has also picked up quite a few endorsements from right-leaning opinion leaders and aging activists such as Pat Boone and Phyllis Schlafly (not exactly the voices of a new generation, but icons, nevertheless, among Christian conservatives).

Endorsements and ephemeral polling statistics have not really mattered much for anyone this year, of course. What has mattered is money and the attack ads money buys. The unrelenting barrage of smears from the Romney camp is what drove back Gingrich surges in Iowa and Florida, and reciprocal nastiness from the former House speaker seems to be contributing to Romney’s negatives among independents.

Santorum has not had enough cash to really be a full participant in this mud fight. But one thing that can be banked on in this otherwise unpredictable primary campaign is that Romney’s attack team will descend like a legion of smoke jumpers if Santorum begins to set off sparks with voters.

Up to this point, that has not been necessary. Gingrich has stood in Romney’s cross hairs while, simultaneously, blocking Santorum’s rise. Gingrich and Santorum have competed for votes from the same crowd of tea party supporters, evangelicals and take-our-country-back culture warriors.

Each man, claiming to be the best choice for purist conservatives, has told the other to call it quits and go home. For now, neither is budging.

Gingrich is mercurial enough that it is possible he might forsake his pledge to forge on to the bitter end. It is far more likely, though, that the transformative leader of monumental importance that he sees in the mirror every morning will not allow him to concede to what he believes is a lesser man.

Santorum, being much younger than Gingrich, could have another shot at this in four years if Obama wins in November, so dropping out now would not end his White House dreams. Still, now that he holds a central spot on the debate stage and sees these tantalizing bits of encouragement in the polls, Santorum has no strong motivation to quit. At a minimum, he’ll try to do well enough in the coming weeks that, next time around, he can grab the early attention and funding that eluded him in 2011.

After all, if Santorum had gotten more notice in July, Republican voters might have warmed earlier to this earnest, articulate fellow in the sweater vest. Independent voters, in particular, see in Santorum the friendly neighbor who loans his lawn mower and offers to drive the kids to Sunday school. Just don’t risk his disdain by mentioning your recent vasectomy. He’s that kind of family man.

ALSO:

Donald Trump and Mitt Romney live in a different America

Mitt Romney's savage attack machine wins Florida primary

Ron Paul gets a boost from brothel bunnies in Nevada caucuses

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Comments
Loading