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Bob Burnett

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The Republicans' Rick Santorum Problem

Posted: 02/24/2012 10:55 am

After Rick Santorum's surprising victories in the Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri primaries, many observers wonder if he has a chance to wrench the Republican presidential nomination away from Mitt Romney. Santorum does have a chance, but he's not a winning candidate, someone who can unite the fractured GOP base.

A recent Pew Research poll revealed the remarkable diversity in the U.S. electorate. In 2012, Pew projects that 10 percent of potential voters, mostly young people, will not vote; Pew allocates the remaining 90 percent to three groups: "Mostly Republican," 25 percent, "Mostly Independent," 35 percent, and "Mostly Democratic," 40 percent. (This reflects ideology not actual Party registration.)

The "Mostly Republican" group includes "Staunch Conservatives" (11 percent) and "Main Street Republicans" (14 percent). Staunch Conservatives are older white voters who "take extremely conservative positions on nearly all issues -- on the size and role of government, on economics, foreign policy, social issues and moral concerns. Most agree with the Tea Party and... very strongly disapprove of Barack Obama's job performance. " Main Street Republicans are similar but not as conservative; for example, they are more likely to house anti-corporation sentiment. Just outside the "Mostly Republican" group is a bloc of Independents, "Libertarians" (10 percent), that typically vote for the Republican presidential candidate -- although they currently have their own favorite, Congressman Ron Paul.

With the demise of Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Perry, Rick Santorum has become the favored candidate among Staunch Conservatives. Mitt Romney has not been accepted by Staunch Conservatives because of his, supposedly, liberal record as Governor of Massachusetts. These Tea Party radicals accuse Romney of being "Republican in name only" (RINO). They point out his transgressions: Romney approved of the TARP bank bailout; he designed the Massachusetts health care system that became the model for "Obamacare;" and his positions on values issues like abortion and gay rights have flip-flopped over the years. Romney has an additional problem because he is a Mormon. In a June 2011 Gallup Poll, 20 percent of Republicans and Independents indicated they would not support Romney because of the Mormon issue and because they see the former Governor as an advocate of abortion and gay marriage.

When the primary contests began, many Republicans saw Mitt Romney as having the best chance to defeat President Obama in the general election. But, as a result of Romney's inconsistent performances in the Republican primaries and the slow improvement of the economy, this perception has changed. The latest polls show Obama ahead of Romney by 5.7 percent and ahead of Santorum by 7.5 percent, a negligible difference. As a consequence, Staunch Conservatives are pulling away from Romney and going with Santorum, whom they see has a chance to win. That's what happening in Michigan where the latest polls indicate a Santorum surge that has him leading Romney by a narrow margin.

The problem for Republicans is that Santorum's strengths are cultural issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage. These resonate with Staunch Conservatives but not with voters, in general. (A recent poll asked, "What is the single most important issue in your choice for President?" 51 percent of respondents said "Economy/Jobs"; only 3 percent answered "Morals/Family Values.") Republicans thought that the recent kerfuffle about mandatory coverage for birth control was going to help them, but it hasn't -- a recent poll found that 61 percent of respondents support the Obama administration's ruling with only 31 percent opposed (the results were similar when only Catholics were polled).

Santorum was educated as a lawyer, but entered politics in 1990. He served first as a Pennsylvania Congressman and then Senator. In 2006, he lost his bid for re-election 41 percent to 59 percent, "the largest losing margin for an incumbent Republican Senator ever." Since that time he has worked as a lawyer and lobbyist.

Given Santorum's background, it comes as no surprise that he has a simplistic economic agenda:

My plan will cut spending and ensure future fiscal responsibility through a balanced budget amendment; lower and simplify taxes for families and businesses to promote growth; return federal programs to the states to promote freedom; and promote sustainable health-care and retirement solutions for young people and seniors. First, I will cut spending by $5 trillion over 5 years, repeal ObamaCare and other onerous regulations and cut non-defense spending to 2008 levels.

In his campaign, Santorum emphasizes cultural issues. Many Republicans believe that's a mistake. Conservative columnist Steve Huntley observed, "Rick Santorum, the current front-running not-Romney candidate, fell into the trap of appearing to question Obama's commitment to Christianity... That only demonstrates why he would be weaker than Mitt Romney as the GOP challenger to Obama in the general election."

But the reality is that Santorum isn't running to lead the Republican Party, he's running to represent Staunch Conservatives. And Romney is running to represent Main Street Republicans. And Paul is running to represent Libertarians.

Some Republicans are whispering that their Party needs better options. But it's too late for that. The GOP is in this political mess because they are mired in a deeper ideological mess. That's bad for them, but good for America.