Huffpost Politics
Matt Sledge Headshot

Rick Santorum In 2012 May Wound GOP Nominee, Like Ted Kennedy Did In 1980

Posted: Updated:
Print
United States Senate
United States Senate

A long, grueling primary divides a party. The insurgent candidate, a Catholic who has represented a Northeastern state in the Senate, rockets to the top of the polls, capitalizing on distrust for the front-runner. But after falling badly behind in the delegate count, the dark horse winds up wounding the anointed one come November.

It sounds like what Rick Santorum is doing to Mitt Romney in 2012. But those statements also apply to the 1980 Democratic primary, when Teddy Kennedy mounted a highly unusual challenge to his own party's president, Jimmy Carter. It was a nasty battle that, in the words of Carter's former chief speechwriter, James Fallows, "badly weakened him for the general election."

"I don't think this year's Republican primary is directly comparable to Kennedy-Carter, simply because it doesn't involve a challenge to a sitting incumbent," said Fallows. "But it is like other deep partisan disagreements, and in those past cases the evidence suggests that the losing faction lacks enthusiasm for the general election. Whether that's the case here we don't know. But overall, it's hard to see how this primary season helps the Republicans in unifying themselves against Obama."

Compared with what was largely a clash of styles between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008, this year's Republican scramble has been "philosophical-political," said Fallows. But for Fallows, and for longtime Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, who worked on Kennedy's campaign in 1980, the Kennedy-Santorum parallels are few.

For starters, Shrum said, leaving aside the profound ideological differences, Rick Santorum is no Ted Kennedy. Shrum remembers that some top Democrats in the summer of 1979, faced with a "profoundly weak" candidate in Carter, actually went out of their way to bring in Kennedy. "You had all these Democrats coming to him, asking him to run," Shrum said. His style and status as a scion of the Kennedy family gave him appeal with both party mandarins and average primary voters.

This year, Shrum argued, neither Republican leaders nor base are particularly entranced by Rick Santorum -- they just hate the alternative. Santorum, Shrum said, simply "happened to be the last non-Romney standing. He didn't have Gingrich's flaws. But it's not like people went out and said, 'Gee, let's find a really good presidential candidate. How about Rick Santorum?'"

Shrum said Romney's team should keep past primaries in mind as they plan for the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa in August. Shrum, of course, helped write Kennedy's famous "the dream shall never die" speech at the Democratic convention in 1980.

"It meant many things," Shrum said of that famous line. "It meant the legacy of what he and his brothers stood for. It meant the notion of a more progressive America, and to a lot of people in the hall who heard it, I think it meant we'll be back in 1984."

Kennedy had something to offer Carter. But for Santorum, Shrum said, "I don't think he's going to have a huge base among conservative activists." He's no GOP power broker now, even though he's won a few states.

Instead, rather than Kennedy's soaring rhetoric, Romney should be on guard for another kind of convention speech the primary loser sometimes makes: a bitter jeremiad. Pat Buchanan gave one at the 1992 Republican convention that essentially called for a culture war, ending with a reference to the 18th Cavalry riding in to put down the LA riots: "As they took back the streets of LA, block by block, so we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country."

"The Romney people are going to face some interesting choices," Shrum said. "Who are they going to let speak in prime time? Are they going to let Rick Santorum stand up and do what Pat Buchanan did in 1992? Stand up and deliver the same kind of sulfurous speech that drove voters away? Is Sarah Palin going to speak?"

Ultimately, Santorum's most damaging legacy for Romney may not be what the former senator from Pennsylvania says at the convention or to his largely evangelical supporters, but where he has forced Romney to go: to the right. As president, Carter was essentially a known quality. But as Romney has been pressured to fight for the conservative base, he has reinforced his image as a flip-flopper.

"I don’t expect to see many Santorum supporters sitting out the election or voting for a third-party candidate," said Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University. "Romney’s main problem will not be with conservatives, but with moderates. By veering sharply to the right to win the nomination, he’s hurt himself with moderates and independents and that could cost him in some of the swing states. You can’t just shake the Etch A Sketch and start from scratch after the primaries."

Around the Web

Rick Santorum for President | Republican Presidential Candidate

US election 2012: Rick Santorum wins Louisiana... but it may not be ...

Rick Santorum 2012 - Nashua Telegraph

Cherry-picking Rick Santorum?

"Welcome to Obamaville" is Rick Santorum's "Hunger Games" (Video)

Rick Santorum uses expletive to lash out at reporter (0:15)

Santorum: Romney 'worst Republican' to face Obama

Inside NOM's Strategy: Use Rick Santorum As A Spokesman For Inequality