What Santorum Did Wrong…and Right

Immediately after his astonishing finish in the Iowa Caucuses (which he turned out to have won), Rick Santorum could have won the nomination and the presidency. But he got lost in the Evangelical Ghetto. Short of money and needing an organization, Santorum grabbed the support offered by the Christian right. Suddenly, he had available to him a pre-fab campaign with manpower, media, issue themes and even some money.

But by entering into their embrace, he also tacitly accepted their limitations. He made it impossible to exploit fully the Tea Party base that was also available to him and found that he could not win secular northern and western conservatives. He could only win in the South. Mike Huckabee and Pat Robertson also found the embrace of the Christian right at once empowering and delimiting. Rick Santorum should have learned from their experience.

As southern pastors, neither Huckabee nor Robertson had much choice but to be pigeonholed by a largely anti-religious media. (Even though Huckabee had been a governor for a decade.) But Santorum, a former Pennsylvania Senator, didn’t have to go down that route.

He needn’t have done so. In 2008, there was no Tea Party movement — Obama had yet to catalyze one. Huckabee had no choice but to go to the Evangelicals. While it was easy for Santorum to get evangelicals because of Romney’s support for abortion rights in Massachusetts, he could equally have used Romneycare to pick up Tea Party voters. But the strings to the evangelical community and the accusations to which their support made him subject, limited his appeal and turned off legions of secular conservatives.

The more he capitalized on the Evangelical support to win Southern primaries, the more anathema he came to be for Northern Republicans and the more attractive Romney became. When Obama turned up his fire on the Republican Party’s “war on women,” he undercut Santorum’s candidacy and made Republicans fear defeat if he were to be nominated. (Why did Obama not wait to make the charge until after Santorum had gained more traction? Big mistake.)

But Santorum did two things right: He got in the race and he stayed in it. He never let his mind deviate from the one central reality: That there would be an anti-Romney candidate who would inherit the votes of all his other likely challengers. Palin, Huckabee, Trump, Daniels, and Christie stayed out of a race they might have won because they overestimated Romney’s strength. And Bachmann, Cain, and Perry pulled out early without waiting to see if they would inherit the wind at the end. But Santorum showed admirable patience. Working hard, avoiding big spending and debt, and staying on message, he bided his time until the others had left the field or, in Newt’s case, absorbed the brunt of the Romney attack, and then stepped up to inherit the anti-Romney vote. His problem was that he became tainted as the Evangelical candidate, which limited his appeal and drove millions of secular Tea Party conservatives back into Romney’s arms.

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