For Santorum, Front-runner Status Comes With Scrutiny

BY Christina Bellantoni and Terence Burlij  February 20, 2012 at 9:26 AM EDT

Rick Santorum; photo by Jay LaPrete/Getty Images

Rick Santorum speaks at Tea Party rally Saturday in Columbus, Ohio. Photo by Jay LaPrete/Getty Images.

The Morning Line

Welcome to life as the presidential nomination front-runner, Rick Santorum.

Cash and fawning crowds aren’t the only things that accompany a surge in national momentum. Santorum is getting plenty of those, but also he is also seeing increased scrutiny on every front.

The latest Gallup tracking poll released Sunday found Santorum leading Mitt Romney, 36 percent to 28 percent, among Republican voters, just one more piece of good news for the former Pennsylvania senator.

But now that more reporters are on Santorum’s trail, and with President Obama’s campaign paying attention for the first time, the GOP’s new favored candidate has landed on the nation’s front pages.

Santorum “faces a new hurdle: defining himself positively before others rush to disqualify him,” Dan Balz wrote on the front page of Sunday’s Washington Post.

Santorum presents himself as a committed and consistent conservative with blue-collar roots — just the kind of candidate Republicans need to energize the party’s base and reach out to Reagan Democrats in a campaign against President Obama that could be decided in the nation’s industrial heartland.

Obama advisers and other Democrats see a Santorum whose record, writings and statements, particularly on social issues, will be used to portray him as far too conservative for many voters. His record, they say, could make Santorum anathema to suburban swing voters, especially women.

Balz’s piece included a Republican strategist fretting, “[T]hey’re going to put the wood to him. He’ll get defined by the Obama people so fast he won’t know what hit him.” The piece also quotes Santorum strategist John Brabender saying that his boss is “extremely reasonable.”

As Stuart Rothenberg (@stupolitics) wrote in his column for Roll Call, “If Santorum were a baseball team, he’d be a small market (undoubtedly Pittsburgh) team with weak pitching, no closer, a shortstop with no range and a first baseman with the nickname of ‘Doctor Strangeglove’ (the nickname of former Pirates first baseman Dick Stuart).”

He adds:

In fact, Santorum the baseball team could never have gotten as far as Santorum the politician.

He wouldn’t be a factor because the rules of baseball still apply. Winning teams have a strong starting rotation, are strong up the middle (pitcher, catcher, centerfield, second base and shortstop), have an unassailable closer and play solid defense. And winning teams haves creative general managers who are given enough resources to put together strong teams.

Traditionally, there are “rules” that apply in politics as well. But this year, things seem different. They don’t seem to apply, which is a problem for those of us who look at the past to understand the present and to project future outcomes.

Democrats, already eagle-eyed for catching anything they consider inflammatory, jumped on Santorum’s comments Saturday in Ohio. He told potential voters that President Obama is acting on “some phony ideal, some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology.”

The remark prompted scolding from the president’s surrogates and the Obama re-election team, which said it smacks of a GOP campaign fraught with “searing pessimism and negativity.” Asked about it on CBS’ Face the Nation, Santorum insisted, “”He says he is a Christian. But I am talking about his world view or his — the way he approaches problems in this country. And I think they’re different than how most people do in America.”

On Monday morning, Team Romney previewed some of the lines you can expect to hear from the candidate or see on the airwaves about Santorum’s long career in Congress. From a press release:

A Lot Has Happened Since Senator Santorum Started Running For Congress In 1989: Major World Event In 1989: George H.W. Bush Is Inaugurated As 41st President Of The United States. (White House Website, www.whitehouse.gov, Accessed 2/19/12) Academy Award-Winning Best Picture For 1989: “Driving Miss Daisy.” (IMDb.com, 2/19/12) Top Television Shows In 1989: “Roseanne” & “The Cosby Show.” (“Names In The News,” The Associated Press, 1/1/90) Billboard’s #1 Hit Single In 1989: Chicago’s “Look Away.” (“Billboard Top 10s Of 1989,” St. Petersburg Times, 12/29/89) Notable Television Premiere In 1989: “Seinfeld.” (Julie Washington, “‘Seinfeld’ Bus To Stop By: No Soup For You, Though,” Plain Dealer, 10/19/08) Video Game System Introduced In 1989: Nintendo’s Game Boy. (Omar El Akkad, “Attack Of The Gadgets Leaves Nintendo Limping,” The [Canada] Globe And Mail, 1/27/12)

But it’s still a four-man race.

Santorum is playing for Newt Gingrich’s home state of Georgia, which votes on Super Tuesday, March 6. His aides think it’s possible to put the state in striking distance, but Gingrich isn’t giving up without a fight.

The former speaker of the House will stay afloat over the next few months, thanks in part to a new cash infusion casino mogul Sheldon Adelson will give to his Winning our Future super PAC.

That money is already being put to use with an attack on Romney. Winning our Future has a new 60-second radio ad attacking Bob Dole and John McCain as what happens when the GOP “establishment” picks a moderate nominee. “They think they control the Republican party,” a narrator intones. “There are more of us than there are of them. We want our party back and our country.” Listen to the ad here.

Hope you enjoy an extended line items section, for some holiday reading.

2012 LINE ITEMS

  • WKAR at Michigan State University interviewed Santorum on Friday’s “Off the Record” show. Santorum said President Obama and Romney are “cut out of the same cloth,” but he said he’d back Romney should the former Massachusetts governor end up the nominee. Watch the segment.

  • Santorum has a huge lead in Texas — a major delegate prize which could vote as late as May 29 — in a new University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll: 45 percent for Santorum, 18 percent for Gingrich, 16 percent for Romney and 14 percent for home state Rep. Ron Paul.

  • Santorum was the first choice of 39 percent of the 278 likely voters who said they planned to participate in the Oklahoma primary on March 6. Romney had 23 percent and Gingrich was at 18 percent, the Tulsa World reports.

  • Santorum won a straw poll in northeastern Ohio.

  • Washington County, Maine, had its moment to caucus — and Romney maintained his victory.

  • Walter Shapiro writes in the New Republic about Romney’s troubled winter, in the form of a business school case study.

  • ABC News’ Michael Falcone reports that Donald Trump will be doing a series of Michigan radio interviews this week to advocate for Romney.

  • The Washington Post’s Jerry Markon unearths Gingrich critiques of Ronald Reagan in “a largely unexplored cache of documents compiled by a former Gingrich aide and archived at the University of West Georgia, where Gingrich was an assistant professor in the 1970s.”

  • Mark Leibovich profiles Obama consigliere David Plouffe in the New York Times.

  • The New York Times does another piece on the strange friendship that’s blossomed between Romney and Paul on the campaign trail.

  • Slate contributor Sasha Issenberg uses an email one woman got from the Obama campaign to explain how the Chicago team began “agglomerating unprecedented volumes of political information” and why it matters.

  • The Washington Posts’s Felicia Sonmez deconstructs Santorum’s campaign trail staple about the dog that peed in his lap.

  • CNN’s Candy Crowley explores Romney’s “lighter side.”

TOP TWEETS

OUTSIDE THE LINES

  • Mark Shields on the legislative battle over the payroll tax cut extension: “I liken this to a narrow canyon in a Western movie, where the stagecoach goes through and it’s most vulnerable to the attack of the bad guys, that they’re going to be held hostage, that this is the last place where the administration has to go through that narrow canyon in this legislative year.” Watch Shields and Michael Gerson on Friday’s NewsHour.

  • The Tea Party Express endorsed Ohio Senate hopeful Josh Mandel in the Republican primary.

  • Maryland is on the verge of legalizing gay marriage.

  • New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, meanwhile, vetoed a gay marriage measure on Friday.

  • ​Pinal County (Ariz.) Sheriff Paul Babeu admitted that he is gay and stepped down as Romney’s Arizona campaign co-chairman after the Phoenix New Times published allegations from the sheriff’s former boyfriend that he was threatened with deportation if he didn’t promise to keep their relationship a secret.

  • EMILY’s List, which works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, made a 30-second television spot focused on the male-dominated conversation about contraception. It’s airing on cable in San Francisco, Chicago and Florida. Watch “Where are the women?” here.

  • The New York Times’ Jodi Kantor on how Supreme Court justices are some of the lone D.C. officials without a security entourage.

  • Roll Call’s Amanda Becker writes that six House Ethics Committee members have voluntarily recused themselves from Rep. Maxine Waters’ case. Six alternates were appointed in their place.

  • Todd Purdum profiles the dean of the House, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., for Vanity Fair.

  • The two-part biography of former President Bill Clinton debuts Monday on PBS.

  • Gwen Ifill (@pbsgwen) shares her views on Black History Month.

  • Half of your Morning Line dynamic duo is moderating a panel at South by Southwest in Austin next month. Here are the details, tell all your friends.

ON THE TRAIL

All events are listed in Eastern Time.

  • Rick Santorum holds three rallies: in Steubenville, Ohio, at 10 a.m., Muskegon, Mich., at 3:15 p.m. and Holland, Mich., at 5:30 p.m. He also addresses the Kent County GOP Lincoln Day Dinner in Grand Rapids, Mich., at 7:45 p.m.

  • Mitt Romney discusses jobs and the economy in Cincinnati at 1:40 p.m.

  • Ron Paul campaigns in North Dakota with stops in Jamestown at 2 p.m. and Bismarck at 6:30 p.m.

  • Newt Gingrich holds a pair of Oklahoma town halls: in Tulsa at 3 p.m. and Oklahoma City at 8 p.m.

All future events can be found on our Political Calendar:


For more political coverage, visit our politics page.

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Questions or comments? Email Christina Bellantoni at cbellantoni-at-newshour-dot-org.

Follow the politics team on Twitter: @cbellantoni, @burlij, @elizsummers.