- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 9, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania is the GOP’s latest presidential flavor of the month, propelled in large part by his party’s large bloc of evangelical and socially conservative voters.

A rogue’s gallery of dubious candidates have received this temporary designation over the course of the GOP’s increasingly bitter fight for the nomination - Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain, who were all at the front of the pack at one time, only to fall behind and drop out of the race.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has had several debate-driven comebacks, notably with a big win in South Carolina. More recently, since losses in Florida and Nevada, he has lost support. He is now in second place in the national party rankings at 21 percent to front-runner Mitt Romney, and his campaign is deeply in debt.

Enter Mr. Santorum, who trounced Mr. Romney in this week’s contests in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, though it remains to be seen whether this was a political fluke in states where voter turnout was relatively light and there were no delegates at stake.

Throughout his career in the Senate, Mr. Santorum was the undisputed leader of the GOP’s social-conservative army that remains an ever-stronger force in the party’s delegate-selection process. He has fervently championed their issues throughout his shoestring campaign - i.e., the role of faith in the religious life of the nation, the government’s war on right-to-life issues, and his fierce opposition to same-sex marriage.

However, his larger political profile has remained cloudy beyond these issues, even though he has set forth a full-blown campaign agenda of tax-cut reforms, job creation and economic revival - issues that Mr. Romney has made the central focus of his candidacy.

While he’s had an influential track record in the Senate over two terms, 1995 to 2007, he doesn’t mention he was overwhelmingly defeated for a third term, losing by a whopping 18 points, 59 percent to 41 percent, to Democrat Robert P. Casey Jr., largely on economic issues.

For better or worse, those are the overriding issues that will likely decide the outcome of the 2012 general election and whether President Obama can win a second term.

Mr. Santorum championed many issues in the Senate, but he was not especially known for his prowess or leadership on the economic issues that cost him his Senate seat in 2006.

While he carved out a conservative record in his Senate years, he was one of the big spenders when it came to stuffing appropriation bills with hundreds of “earmarks,” special-interest spending provisions for his state. All told, according to most reports, he steered hundreds of millions of tax dollars into his state for a variety of questionable public-works projects.

Taxpayers for Common Sense, a deficit-cutting advocacy group, “estimated Mr. Santorum helped secure more than $1 billion in earmarks during his Senate career,” the New York Times reported last month.

The influential Club for Growth, a tax-cutting advocacy organization, said, “Santorum was a prolific supporter of earmarks, having requested billions of dollars for pork projects in Pennsylvania while he was in Congress.”

This has already become a major line of attack by the Romney campaign. It sent out a blistering email Thursday attacking Mr. Santorum as a longtime Washington insider and big spender who contributed to the growth in government over his years in the Senate when spending skyrocketed from $1.5 trillion in 1995 to $2.7 trillion by 2007.

Borrowing a line from Will Rogers, the email charged that Mr. Santorum “never met an earmark he didn’t like.”

Clearly, Mr. Romney has suffered significant setbacks from Mr. Santorum’s clean victories in the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses and Missouri’s “beauty contest” primary. Yet it remains to be seen how this translates in the delegate-selection process to come in those states.

Mr. Romney spent little time and even less money in the three contests. He came in second in Colorado, failing to match his performance there in 2008, when he won about 60 percent of the vote. He finished a distant second in Missouri and an embarrassing third in Minnesota.

But this is only the beginning of what could be a long slog through the GOP’s primaries and caucuses, which have become the political equivalent of trench warfare. The history of recent Republican presidential nominating contests is that the eventual winner often loses many contests, only to rack up enough delegates to clinch the nomination.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona lost 19 primaries in 2008, but went on to become the party’s nominee.

Nor is Mr. Romney’s relatively low 35 percent support unusual at this point in a divided primary race. At this point in 1980, Ronald Reagan was polling only 34 percent support in his party, but went on to win his party’s nod and the presidency.

Mr. Romney is expected to do well on Feb. 28 in the winner-take-all primary in Arizona, where there is a large Mormon population, and in his home-state primary in Michigan.

Many factors will enter into the remaining months of the GOP’s nomination race, but in the end, electability may be the most critical factor of them all.

According to recent Gallup polls, Mr. Romney is clearly the strongest candidate against Mr. Obama right now. They are tied 48 percent to 48 percent among registered voters in the 12 battleground swing states that will likely decide the election. They are also tied nationally.

Mr. Romney’s three rivals, Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Santorum and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas are all in the low 40s against the president in the swing states. If the election were held today, Mr. Santorum would lose to Mr. Obama by 51 percent to 43 percent.

Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and former chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.

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