The Daily Need

What does the Santorum surge in Iowa mean for the rest of the Republican primary?

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, joined by wife Karen at his Iowa caucus victory party Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012, in Johnston, Iowa. Photo: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Imagine this: Three candidates, all with vastly different backgrounds and ideologies, engaging in a substantive national debate, the stage cleared of all side-shows and gimmickry. The Republican contest, and the battle for the soul of the GOP, narrowed to just three candidates, drawing sharp contrasts with each other on issues as disparate as foreign policy, civil liberties, health care, executive power and LGBT rights. Three candidates offering different visions for America’s future, and voters getting the chance to make an informed decision.

Or maybe Rick Santorum will just implode.

The former Pennsylvania senator’s near defeat of GOP front-runner Mitt Romney in Tuesday night’s Iowa caucus guarantees an unstable race going forward, one that has the potential either to drag on interminably or wrap up quickly if Santorum, like all the other anti-Romneys in the race, loses steam. The latter outcome, in fact, seems more likely at the moment, given Romney’s wide lead in the polls in New Hampshire, the next state to vote on the Republican primary. The most recent tracking poll from Suffolk University had the former Massachusetts governor at 43 percent, compared to just 5 percent for Santorum.

The GOP establishment will also mobilize quickly to coronate Romney and head off a sustained insurgency by Santorum, whose campaign is cash-poor and organizationally weak. Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 nominee and no darling of the Republican base, is reportedly planning to endorse Romney next week. Establishment Republicans have for months been jittery about the apparently deep well of discontent with Romney’s campaign among the GOP electorate, and now that a seemingly viable conservative alternative has emerged, party eminences are likely to close ranks quickly.

Of course, it’s highly questionable whether Santorum is, in fact, a viable candidate. His surge in Iowa deserves some recognition, but then again, the history of Republican nominating contests is littered with failed candidates who performed well in the Iowa caucus, only to lose out to mainstream Republicans in the latter stages of the campaign. In 1988, for example, the evangelical preacher Pat Robertson managed a close second in Iowa, just like Santorum. But he was unable to compete in the multi-state primaries, and the same will likely be true of Santorum. Romney is the only candidate with a nationwide organization, capable of mobilizing voters in more than one state at a time (just a few hours before the Iowa vote began, Romney’s campaign announced that it was buying advertising time in Floriday, whose primary is still a month away).

Santorum is also likely to come under much more intense scrutiny, especially in the debates. In fact, the former Pennsylvania senator may have benefited in a way from the lack of Republican debates in the weeks leading up to the Iowa caucus. On Tuesday, Santorum was to many GOP voters just the latest and most palatable candidate in a rotating cast of anti-Romneys. On a debate stage, standing next to Romney, he might look much more like an also-ran.

With Romney likely to cruise to a romp in New Hampshire, the real proving ground for Santorum, and for the third-place finisher Ron Paul, will be the large states, like Florida, and the multi-state primaries beginning in February and culminating with Super Tuesday in March. That’s where money and organization will matter most. And it’s likely to quash the pie-in-the-sky dream of three candidates engaging in a lengthy, substantive debate about the future of America.

 
SUGGESTED STORIES
  • thumb
    The admission arms race
    From ProPublica, an in-depth look at the ways in which colleges can pump up their stats.
  • thumb
    Home-grown terrorism
    The story of the Boston bombers is still unfolding at high speed, but counterterror officials believe the brothers were Islamic extremists.
  • thumb
    Boston reading guide
    Need to play catch up? Here's a full list of resources for more on what's going on in Boston.

Comments