Fans of the National Basketball Association have a saying about the league's playoff series: It's not a competition until the visiting team shows up and beats its opponents at home. This week, the 2012 race for the GOP nomination finally got interesting in the same way. It's not much of a surprise that former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum won -- in the end -- the Iowa caucuses. He'd camped out in that state all year. In South Carolina, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich demonstrated that he knew just what buttons to push to turn the voters on and get them out to the polls. And former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was well at home in places like New Hampshire -- where he actually lives -- and Las Vegas, where he drew on the support of the state's large Mormon community.
This week, it was anticipated that Santorum was going to have a decent night on Tuesday. There was a mostly meaningless "beauty contest" primary in Missouri that only he was taking seriously, and in Minnesota, the social conservatives who form that state's conservative base were more Santorum's flavor. But when Santorum completed the sweep that night by notching a win in Colorado, that got people's attention. Romney was not supposed to lose that state. Sure, Santorum's success in the Centennial State was due in large part to the fact that Romney hadn't bothered to turn on his super PAC Money Spigot Of Certain Death, but the story remained that Santorum had stolen a win away from the presumed front-runner on Romney's home turf.
But the changes wrought in the past week weren't limited to the horse race. A far more interesting dynamic surfaced in the national news cycle, where a range of events -- the Komen/Planned Parenthood kerfuffle, the Proposition 8 ruling, and the hot controversy over the Obama administration's ruling on contraception coverage -- brought the 'culture war' back in a big way. As NBC's First Read put it: "You know the economy must be improving when cultural and social issues come roaring back into the national spotlight." And over at Business Insider, Michael Brendan Daugherty took it a step further, cautioning readers to "forget jobs" as an election year issue:
Everyone thought that the 2012 election would be about jobs, jobs, jobs.
They were wrong.
First corporate profits went up. The market has been strong for almost two months. Unemployment is falling. And there are even signs of life in the housing industry.
Yes, America still has long term debt problems. And Americans are saddled with lots of household debt.
But the last three weeks prove that what gets Americans really fired up is the culture war.
The confluence of Santorum's success and the rise of culture war issues raises an interesting question. If the economy actually improves, does Romney still have an argument for why he should be president? And if events require the GOP contenders to earn the nomination based on fealty to true red-blooded conservatism, isn't Santorum in a better position? Can Gingrich earn the mantle based upon his past triumphs? Or is Texas Rep. Ron Paul already using his well-trained army of supporters to steal enough delegates to earn a seat at the table?
And in a wonderful example of serendipitous timing, the week has swung from the midwestern nominating contests back to Washington, D.C. and the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). At CPAC, the vagaries of the economy never matter much. Whether the economy is booming or breaking down, at CPAC you're always supposed to lower taxes on the wealthy, gut government programs and slash entitlements. All of that is a given. When candidates come to CPAC, they're coming to the Temple, to prove that you deserve to be ordained in the spirit of Saint Reagan. And at CPAC, these culture war issues matter greatly in how well you're received, and how much support from the conservative movement you're likely to take with you as you return to the trail.
Romney, Gingrich and Santorum all made the pilgrimage to CPAC. Paul didn't make the trip, opting instead to keep working on the trail. (CPAC is old hat to Paul, so the decision to keep working at winning votes on the trail is the smart play.) We invite you all to follow our CPAC coverage by clicking here, and here. And, of course, we invite you all to enter the Speculatron for the week of Feb. 10, 2012.
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