Santorum Steals Conservative Thunder From Gingrich

The former Pennsylvania senator emerges as the right-wing alternative to Mitt Romney.

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, a Republican Party presidential hopeful, speaks in West Des Moines, Iowa, January 3
Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, a Republican Party presidential hopeful, speaks in West Des Moines, Iowa, January 3 (Gage Skidmore)

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum has replaced Newt Gingrich as the conservative standard-bearer in the race for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.

After huge election wins in the Midwestern states of Minnesota and Missouri this month and staging a surprise victory in Colorado, Santorum has jumped ahead of the presumptive nominee Mitt Romney in recent nationwide surveys while the former House speaker, who, just a month ago, appeared poised to challenge Romney as the more right-wing candidate in the race, has been decimated in the polls.

Romney’s nationwide support has remained fairly steady at over 25 percent for months. Currently, just less than a third of the Republican electorate considers him the best candidate.

Gingrich, whose popularity peaked at over 30 percent after he won the primary election in South Carolina in early January, has seen his support plummet to between 10 and 15 percent. Santorum, by contrast, has doubled his support — clearly at the former speaker’s expense.

Texas congressman Ron Paul, a libertarian candidate, has polled around 12 percent since December. Few believe that he stands a chance of winning the race. His aim seems to be to accumulate delegates in order to influence the party platform at the nominating convention in August.

Just as Newt Gingrich’s sudden popularity in early January had less to do with the former House speaker than Republican primary voters’ lack of enthusiasm for Mitt Romney, Santorum’s surge could prove temporary once conservatives take a closer look at his record.

Romney is perceived as a moderate because he once favored abortion rights and implemented a health insurance scheme in Massachusetts when he was governor that resembles President Barack Obama’s health reform legislation. Gingrich, however, also once favored a mandate that forces people to buy health insurance; a measure which conservatives now oppose.

Both Gingrich and Romney expressed support for the unpopular 2008 bank bailout program but Santorum didn’t distance himself from the effort until he began to campaign for the presidential nomination either. He also favored pork-barrel spending, or earmarks, as senator and voted to expand Medicare, the federal health support program for the elderly.

Santorum did champion welfare and Social Security reform and is a staunch social conservative — he strongly opposes abortion and legal recognition of gay partnerships — but is far from the ideal, small-government conservative that the Republican base hungers for.

Indeed, he admitted as much in 2006 when he argued that most conservatives do not embrace the notion of personal autonomy. “Some do,” he said. “They have this idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do, government should keep our taxes down and keep our regulations low, that we shouldn’t get involved in the bedroom, we shouldn’t get involved in cultural issues. You know, people should do whatever they want.” According to Santorum, it is “not how traditional conservatives view the world” although this more libertarian view on what should be the role of government is gaining strength within the Tea Party and among Ron Paul supporters.

The Texas congressman likes to point out that he is the only one among the four Republican Party presidential contenders who draws young people to his cause. In both the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries last month, Paul won half of the youth vote.

It may be why Jim DeMint, a very socially conservative senator from South Carolina, cautioned his fellow Republicans against ignoring the Paul vote in the nominating contests. “If Republicans don’t figure out how to listen to and understand some of the things he’s saying,” he told Fox News in January, it could split the party.

Especially on issues of contraception and gay marriage, Santorum’s beliefs, inspired by his Catholic faith, do not align with the views of the majority of Americans, including young Americans who are drawn to the Ron Paul’s message of individual liberty and limited government.

The Santorum campaign knows this and tries to emphasize their candidate’s blue-collar roots and industrial policy.

The Pennsylvania native, a traditional swing state with twenty electoral votes up for grabs, promises to reinvigorate American manufacturing with a tax regime that disproportionately favors factory labor. He rejects global warming as a leftist conspiracy and would allow energy companies to “drill everywhere” for oil and gas. This could prove popular in Rust Belt states like Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania where there are many unionized working-class voters, sometimes known as a “Reagan Democrats,” who may be tempted to vote Republican, as they voted for Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, if they perceive the Democratic candidate as an elitist and out-of-touch with their everyday struggles while the Republican speaks their language.

February 28 will be a test for Santorum’s strategy when primary voters in Michigan head for the polls. Mitt Romney was born there and his father was governor of the state in the 1960s when he also ran for president — unsuccessfully.

During the 2008 presidential primary, Romney won Michigan with 39 percent of the vote compared to Senator John McCain’s 30 percent. That was before Romney said to oppose public financial support for two of Detroit’s automakers however. Recent polls have him and Santorum tied in Michigan.

If Romney loses his home state, he would be hard pressed to maintain his frontrunner status while Santorum can claim that his message resonates beyond the evangelical base of the Republican Party and could endear Reagan Democrats to his election bid.

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