COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Less than a day before 10 states vote on Super Tuesday, Rick Santorum's presidential campaign displayed a new operational wrinkle. For the first time, the candidate jumped on a conference call with reporters.
It was a chance to hammer Mitt Romney as a fraud on health care reform -- philosophically supportive of the same principles as President Barack Obama. But as the former senator spoke, it became hard not to see the call as emblematic of a candidacy on the precipice of serious trouble. A nomination that seemed ripe for his taking just two weeks ago was in danger of being out of his reach. The former senator’s seat-of-the-pants style and lack of formal infrastructure had caught up with him again.
A loss in Ohio Tuesday -- far from certain given the dead heat that the polls show -- would not be the first time Santorum has been hurt by his lack of organization. But it would be the most damaging.
The news that prompted Santorum’s campaign to hastily organize the conference call -- a 2009 op-ed and video clips of Mitt Romney advising the president to incorporate penalties for those who didn't buy individual health insurance -- could have surfaced weeks if not months ago if Santorum had an opposition research staff.
The Huffington Post asked a Santorum campaign official why the campaign had not been hammering the health care message, day in and day out, starting many weeks ago.
“He's always talked about RomneyCare and ObamaCare, but it's been just this past week where we've gotten the information about the op-ed, we've got the videos of him talking about it on the Sunday morning shows,” Alice Stewart, a Santorum spokeswoman, said in Cuyahoga Falls after his last event of the day.
“I mean, we don't have a huge op-ed team. We don't have a research department to dig up this stuff,” said Stewart, the former top spokesperson for Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-Minn.) presidential campaign who was hired less than a month ago to help expand Santorum’s communications shop. “We're a smaller campaign. And when that stuff came to light, we worked as fast as we could to get that information out there.”
Even Santorum's call itself was something of breakthrough for the bare-bones campaign. Two previous efforts to organize a tele-briefing for reporters resulted in haphazard messes. The campaign had to stop and restart the process when they couldn't mute participants.
More than anything else, however, it was the abrupt switch to a new topic that was the starkest example of how Santorum is still, two months into the primary, reacting to events rather than shaping them.
Santorum was badly hurt in February by his lack of message discipline. Staunch conservatism and willingness to talk about social issues requires a fine dash of humor, as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has shown. But Santorum has regularly trampled through land mine territory with the delicacy of a runaway rhino and with a self-seriousness that veers towards lecturing. His wife, Karen, told Politico on Monday that she had chastised her husband for calling Obama a “snob” and for answering questions about contraception instead of staying on national security.
On Monday, Santorum made clear, however, that he wasn't going to stop talking about the importance of social values.
"The national media, and yes the left, and yes even some within our own party, have suggested that oh, you just can't talk about" family values, said Santorum. "You just have to be the party of tax cuts. Ladies and gentlemen, if we're just the party of tax cuts, we'll never win another election. America cares about more than just lower taxes."
Santorum won contests in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri on Feb. 7, but squandered a large lead in Michigan and lost that primary on Feb. 28. It wasn’t all his fault. Romney and his allied super PAC had far more money to spend and did so, burying him in an avalanche of negative TV advertising.
Romney himself hasn’t exactly exhibited a deft political touch. His flair for the rhetorical misstep was evident again on Monday when he called his wife Ann the "heavyweight" of the campaign, only to apologetically clarify that he wasn't discussing her poundage.
But unlike Santorum, the former governor can fall back on a finely tuned infrastructure. His campaign and super PAC are poised to outspend Santorum and his super PAC by a margin of 12 to one in Ohio, according to Santorum. And while Romney may not connect with voters, he has exhibited the discipline on the stump that's eluded his main rival. Whereas Santorum spoke for roughly an hour to a crowd of several hundred at an American Legion hall outside Columbus on Monday, Romney spent 10 minutes total on his closing speech in a quiet inn in Zanesville -- uninterested in disrupting the current trend lines.
The most obvious case of organization finally trumping momentum may end up being the delegate count. Romney already leads with 203 delegates to Santorum's 93. And Santorum will enter Super Tuesday with one hand tied behind his back. His name won't be on the ballot in Virginia and his campaign failed to file the necessary paperwork in three of Ohio's congressional districts.
The perception, in the end, is that Romney has been incredibly lucky to end up in the driver's seat. But that may be too dismissive of the campaign he’s built. As one close associate of the former governor told The Huffington Post, "Ben Hogan says: 'The more I practice, the luckier I get.'"
This election season has been defined by unpredictability, and Santorum could still squeeze out a big Tuesday win. Six new Ohio polls came out Monday, showing the race between Romney and Santorum a dead heat. Romney led three of the polls by one to four percentage points, Santorum led two others by one to four percentage points, and a sixth survey showed a tie. The Real Clear Politics polling average showed Romney with a 0.1 percent edge, quite a difference from one week ago, when Santorum led in polling aggregate by six percentage points, 34.3 percent to 28 percent.
Ohio has received the most attention ahead of Super Tuesday, but it’s not the only state where Santorum has a chance to score a victory. In Tennessee, he has watched his lead in the polls diminish over the past week, but perhaps not fast enough to deny him a win. Two week-long polls conducted from the middle of February showed Santorum leading Romney by 18 and 21 points in the Volunteer State. But two surveys released over the last few days showed the margin down to four and five points. Another had Romney with a one-point lead.
In Oklahoma, the polling has been sparse, but it has shown Santorum with a significant lead. There are 391 delegates at stake in Tuesday's contests, the most by far of any day so far in Republican contest.
Romney will likely have a strong showing in Massachusetts, Vermont, and Virginia, where he has only Rep. Ron Paul as competition. But the biggest delegate yields are in Ohio (63 delegates), Tennessee (55), and Oklahoma (40). In Georgia, there are 76 delegates at stake. None of these contests are winner-take-all. Each candidate has the opportunity to compete for delegates in parts of each state where they are strong.
One week from today, Alabama and Mississippi will hold primaries. If Santorum wins Ohio and does well in the South on Super Tuesday, he could be primed to sweep two more big wins there. Conversely, it is conceivable that if Santorum falters and Gingrich does well in the southern states today, he could follow that up with wins in Alabama and Mississippi, and the GOP could be in for yet another resurgence by the former House speaker.
But there is a growing sense, driven by new poll numbers that show a dispirited party and expressed in the lament of former first lady Barbara Bush over the state of the race, that Republicans are growing weary of this intra-party firefight. An Ohio win for Romney could be the final nudge needed for him to plausibly call for a closure of the primary.
Then again, maybe not.