THE BLOG
02/10/2012 01:58 pm ET Updated Apr 11, 2012

Santorum and Romney: What's That About?

When the Republican field assembled last year, the early handicapping put Rick Santorum at the very bottom. A one-term Senator from Pennsylvania, he had been trounced in his for re-election campaign, had a string of hard, angry insensitive quotes about various groups he didn't like, had no money, and wasn't a skilled debater. Everyone dismissed him, including Mitt Romney.

So Tuesday he sweeps Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado, again upsetting the conventional analyses that had Romney sweeping toward inevitable victory. He's now won more states than any candidate. Something is up. 

The easy, and sensible, reason has more to do with Romney's failures than Santorum's virtues. After all the Republican electorate has rushed from Bachmann to Perry to Cain and to Gingrich only to fall back into the arms of the best-looking, best coiffed, and toothiest candidate, Mitt. There's clearly a deep distrust of Romney that's kept him at around a third of Republican voters, while the others divide the remaining two-thirds. Part of that is a strategic choice: Mitt chose to run against Obama rather than appeal to the hard-right base. Part of it is history: He really was pro-choice and pro-health care mandate at one time and that's tough to explain to the Tea Party. 

Campaigns are designed to work around such problems and Mitt probably can do so, just like Clinton or Reagan did. But there's something else at work, on a deeper level, that explains both Romney's weakness and Santorum's strength

Here's where Rick has the advantage over Mitt:
  • "Authenticity": What Rick has projected is a sense that he is an authentic and grounded person. He ideas may be inadequate, his statements hurtful, his vision of America narrow, but that's what he actually believes. It comes from a set of core values, and the rest is tactics. Mitt has never been able to do that, and doesn't seem to have tried. And that disconnect, that gap between the two men, is probably the reason for Santorum's resurgence.
  • Biography: Rick's personal story reinforces that advantage. He is from blue-collar, Roman Catholic roots. He has dealt with the profound difficulty of a very sick child with grace and sincerity. He's been consistent, even when he's been wrong. As the Republican contest matures and the electorate peers into the eyes of each candidate, Santorum looks back with more clarity and authenticity than Mitt will ever be able to generate. 

That may not be enough, in the real world of presidential politics, and won't be enough in a general election. But for now, it is an almost insuperable problem for Mitt and the Republican establishment. It turns out that in the world of Super PACs and Citizen United and attack ads and infinite debates, voters are still willing and able to ask questions about character that can turn elections on their head.


Here's where Mitt trumps Rick:

  • Money: Romney has far and away the most money of any Republican candidate out there.
  • Organization: Romney has been "in the states" longer than anyone, which goes back to his bigger war chest.

These disadvantages count a great deal. Rick has a narrow opening, and it would be a mistake to do what worked on Tuesday and hope it works again. 

A long-shot candidate needs bold strokes, risky strokes.  Break out of the routine of the campaign. Meet with the NAACP. Show up at a Romney staged event. Pick a vice president.  Get Palin to endorse.  In the midst of this somewhat shaky list of options is something that will work.  But charm and sincerity won't be enough to beat Mitt.
 
The Republican campaign is increasingly being conducted in a small echo chamber, between candidates and a very narrow slice of the American people. That longer it goes on the more it will limit the chances of victory in November. But, even in these circumstances, it's heartening to see voters see through a lot of what campaigns are about and to remind the political class that character and authenticity matter. Now let's see if Rick can make the next move, and clinch the deal.