Opinion: Campaign 2012: It’s Rick Santorum’s turn

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The Iowa Republican caucuses Tuesday produced one clear loser: Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who failed to crack double digits despite campaigning intensively. The winner isn’t so clear, given how few votes separated Mitt Romney and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). But Romney’s showing was expected and Santorum’s was not -- at least not until a few days ago, when surveys confirmed his meteoric ascendancy.

That means Santorum comes out of Iowa with momentum, credibility and new-found attention. But it also means he’ll have a huge target on his back.


The Iowa caucuses demonstrated how effectively rival campaigns and independent, well-heeled ‘super PACs’ can sour the public on a candidate. Just look at former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who went from hero to zero (OK, low double digits) in about a week.

Santorum is no Gingrich, in ways both good and bad. He’s significantly more socially conservative than Gingrich, which could help him in several early primary states but won’t in the general election. He’s not as prone to gross overstatements, and his ego is easier to fit into the room. During the debates he’s been focused and articulate, pushing a plan to grow the economy by reviving American manufacturing. But he hasn’t shown the same expertise as Gingrich in far-flung topics, or a similar ability to think creatively about problems.

His tenure in the Senate was cut short in 2006, when Pennsylvania voters picked Democrat Bob Casey by a humbling margin of 17 percentage points. Santorum blamed the shellacking on the wave of sentiment against President George W. Bush; he had supported Bush’s unpopular proposals to privatize Social Security and send more troops to Iraq. But Santorum’s expansive social conservatism was a factor too; for example, polls showed that many were rankled by his efforts to stop the removal of a feeding tube from a Florida woman, Terri Schiavo, who’d been in a vegetative state for 15 years.

Santorum was so far behind Casey from the start that Democrats didn’t have to dig deep for material to attack him with. Nor has Santorum faced the kind of scrutiny from the right that he’s about to encounter. So it’s hard to predict the kind of attacks Santorum will draw, or whether he’ll fade as quickly as Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Gingrich did once they drew the media’s (and their rivals’) withering glare. Perhaps the only sure thing is that Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) will keep accusing Santorum of dangerous warmongering toward Iran, and Santorum won’t mince words in response.


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-- Jon Healey