Santorum Escapes Mitt’s Moneybags, for Now

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How you like my hat trick? Photo: Whitney Curtis/2012 Getty Images

Assessing the importance of Rick Santorum’s shocking sweep is a very tricky thing. On the one hand, you want to dismiss the potential for a lasting Santorum surge, because there have been so many fleeting surges before — Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Pat Sajak, and the corpse of Chiang Kai-Shek are all among the figures who, if my now-faulty memory serves correctly, have led in the polls at some point during this race. So that leads back to the comfort of certainty that Mitt Romney will ultimately triumph. On the other hand, the other consistent pattern is that everybody has been frequently wrong about this race, and by “everybody” I mean, in particular, myself.

I have believed all along that Romney is an extremely vulnerable front-runner who could be beaten by any competent challenger. But no competent challenger has emerged. We’re left with a third-stringer like Santorum.

Now, Santorum has some attributes. Republicans like him fine. He has consistently had high favorable ratings but lost mainly because voters didn’t consider him a contender — a cycle of failure every long-shot contender struggles to escape, but with the right spark can potentially be transformed into a cycle of success.

His more serious failing is a lack of money. Santorum swept Romney last night for the same reason Gingrich crushed him in South Carolina: Romney and his allies complacently sat back rather than spending their challengers into the ground. In his victory speech last night, Santorum explicitly cited this as a reason for his victory. “Tonight we had an opportunity to see what a campaign looks like when one candidate isn’t outspent five- or ten-to-one by negative ads impugning their integrity and distorting their record,” he said. His point was a sophisticated one: This offered a “more accurate representation” of what the general election would look like — Romney won’t enjoy that kind of crushing financial edge over Obama — and, thus, a reason to nominate Santorum instead.

A fair point. On the other hand, Romney will probably quickly resume his proven strategy of burying opponents under gigantic piles of money. Santorum needs to very quickly raise a huge fortune, which is possible, though very hard to do at such a late date.

Romney, I have finally decided after cycling through various analogies, is Big Jim from the Bob Dylan ballad “Lili, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”:

Big Jim was no one’s fool, he owned the town’s only diamond mine
He made his usual entrance lookin’ so dandy and so fine
With his bodyguards and silver cane and every hair in place
He took whatever he wanted to and he laid it all to waste

Romney owns the only diamond mine in the Republican race.

So what can Santorum accomplish, in the absence of a miracle fund-raising windfall? He can delay Romney’s pivot to the center. Yesterday Romney issued a fierce and even vicious response to the federal court ruling in California overturning the gay marriage ban, implying the judge was biased because he is gay. (On the question of whether two gay people can marry each other, only heterosexuals are impartial.) Santorum can likewise delay the stream of party officials endorsing Romney – none of them want to risk aggravating the right-wing base in the service of associating themselves with a possible loser. Conservatives just don’t like Romney very much.