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Is Santorum Surge In Minnesota a Sign of Things to Come?

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No one expected former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum to last this long in the 2012 presidential race. Even his strong showing in Iowa caucuses on January 3, where he was eventually declared the winner-by-a-nose, was viewed more as a fluke than a sign of greater things to come. His performance in national debates shortly after he was declared the winner in Iowa seemed to confirm the impression that the earnest but rabidly pro-life Santorum -- who was badly beaten for re-election six years ago -- simply wasn't ready for prime time. Fielding more debate questions, and finally given an opportunity to shine, Santorum sounded verbose, defensive and unsteady. He soon faded back into the shadows.

But suddenly, Santorum has returned to the limelight. Polls show him at the top of the leaderboard in today's non-binding precinct caucus in Minnesota, and surging into second place in the caucuses in Colorado and Missouri. If he beats Mitt Romney in Minnesota, and bests Newt Gingrich elsewhere, it could throw a wrench into the carefully crafted Romney narrative of an inevitable march to the GOP nomination. It could also kill Gingrich's chances of making yet another miraculous comeback after his recent devastating loss in Florida, and his decisive beating in Nevada last Saturday.

Why is Santorum re-emerging? Gingrich's near-flame out is part of the reason. Romney's attacks on Gingrich -- he outspent the former House speaker 5-1 in Florida, and out-fielded him 60-1 in campaign ads -- have taken a huge toll on the former House speaker, who for the first time in months, seems genuinely on the ropes. But Gingrich's own attack ads -- depicting Romney as a heartless corporate raider who lacks a conservative soul -- have also rattled the former Massachusetts governor. Despite his air of triumphalism, Romney now has to fight the perception that he's increasingly vulnerable to Obama in the general election, a perception borne out in recent polls that for the first time show him trailing the president badly.

Santorum's strategy -- admittedly a long shot at this point -- seems to be to let the two GOP heavyweights punch each other out, then re-enter the ring as a kind of last credible fighter standing. Use his staunch pro-life, anti-gay marriage credentials to win over faith based voters in a slew of contests over the next two months -- starting today in Minnesota, especially -- and then, burnish his reputation as an establishment team player by pointing to his strong legislative record and command of the issues. In other words, a Gingrich, but without the insider baggage and troubled marital history, and a Romney, but without the long history of wishy-washy conservatism, and antipathy towards social issues.

Can it work? Probably not. If polls are to believed, voters, even the Christian evangelicals who naturally find an ardent Catholic so appealing, are seeking the most "electable" candidate, and by all appearances, they're willing to set aside their qualms about Romney, including his Mormonism, if it increases the party's chances of defeating a Democrat they consider on par with the Anti-Christ.

Still, there's movement Santorum's way. You can see it not only in the state polls but in the latest Gallup poll that has Santorum at 18 percent, his highest share ever, and just 6 points behind the fading Gingrich. Santorum, in fact, seems to have a distinct advantage over Gingrich in that he's drawing more balanced support from different wings of the party, while Gingrich seems to be opting for a right-wing populism that will likely doom his chances long-term. And given the continuing disarray in the GOP, a strong showing by Santorum today will almost certainly earn him a serious second look, and a shot at making additional strong showings in other pre-Super Tuesday contests like Arizona (February 28) and Washington
(March 3).

Is it possible that Gingrich will pull out of the race before Santorum? Unlikely, given Newt's stubbiorn determination to persevere and the leg up he has on the field in several delegate-rich Southern contests. But Gingrich, according to earlier polls, might well have won Minnesota today had he bothered to visit the state this week as Santorum, Romney, and Ron Paul did. The fact that he didn't - after failing to qualify in Missouri and Virginia, where he also polled well - only seems to add to the impression that Gingrich himself, and not just his campaign - admittedly, the two are virtually indistinguishable - is fast running out of steam. A Santorum breakthrough will surely add to growing pressure on Gingrich to step aside, and Santorum, in any event, may well start chipping away at Gingrich's support on the far-right. If he can also hold the center - and the latest Rasmussen poll is suggestive of his appeal to independents - he could well emerge in the minds of GOP voters as a serious alternative to Romney.

Are Mitt's campaign advisers worried? You bet they are.

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