Lord, it won’t be long now. Mitt Romney winning New Hampshire was expected. Un-nominatable gadfly/loon Ron Paul, a charter member of Team Mitt, coming in second ahead of Romney foe Jon Huntsman made the victory even sweeter. There may be a chance for a single non-Romney to emerge, but almost assuredly it will be far too late.
The scenario for defeating Mitt Romney always involved a conservative candidate catching fire among the base and leading organs of the conservative movement, pummeling Romney from the right as a heretic. What’s fascinating is that the two best-known or best-funded challengers, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, are now attacking Romney from the left, as a parasite venture capitalist. Even conservatives who loathe Romney, like Rush Limbaugh, are apoplectic at the left-wing populist message.
The ideological bizarreness of the attack on Romney is hard to exaggerate. The argument advanced by Gingrich and his allies is that, essentially, it is morally wrong to fire economically unproductive workers. This is a premise more radically left-wing than anything proposed by either party in decades. It’s evidently popular among Republican base voters. The conservative rank and file share the party elites’ distrust of government and fear of redistributing their money to the poor, those unable to afford health insurance, and other unworthies, but they don’t share the conservative elite’s ideological love of capitalism and “job creators.”
Gingrich has torn open that divide between the elite and the base, and Perry has enthusiastically leaped in. Both, while capitalizing on a short-term vulnerability they found in Romney, made their already-tiny prospects of consolidating right-wing elite support even more remote.
The one possible beneficiary of all this, except of course for President Obama, is Rick Santorum. Though lacking on money, organization, charisma … well, pretty much everything, he shrewdly kept his head down while his rivals tore into Romney. Santorum has put himself in a position to benefit from any damage done to Romney without stigmatizing himself among the Limbaughs and Hannitys of the party by taking the wrong side in the class war. Indeed, Santorum reaffirmed his pro-rich — sorry, pro-job creator — bona fides by insisting at the debate that it was wrong even to use the term “middle class,” as such a term smacks of European class-based thinking.
If Santorum could clear the field of Perry and Gingrich, he could actually get that straight fight of Romney against somebody who isn’t the father of national health insurance that has been anticipated for months but has never quite materialized. The problem for Santorum is that the timing doesn’t seem to work out for him. Both Gingrich and Perry want to stay and fight in South Carolina, and both, as Southerners, have an advantage over him. But if they stay, Romney could well win there, and in so doing gain so much momentum that, added to his massive financial edge, Santorum won’t stand a chance going forward.
Conservatives came out of 2008 haunted by their failure to coalesce around a single candidate, allowing the candidate they least trusted to gain early victories against a divided field and win unstoppable momentum before they could gain their footing. They are living their nightmare again.
*An earlier version of this column said that a PPP poll had Santorum leading Romney by two percentage points in South Carolina. The poll in question was actually of North Carolina. The PPP South Carolina poll has Romney up by eleven points over Santorum.