The damage Schmidt is talking about in the latter case revolves around independent voters. By pressing Romney on Bain and his tax returns, Gingrich helped create the context for his rival’s errors. “The toughest thing in a campaign is when there’s synergy between your opponents’ attacks on the left and right,” Schmidt explains. “The same criticisms of Romney being made by Democrats are being echoed by his Republican challengers. And when criticism becomes ecumenical, that really impacts independent voters.”
And how. An NBC News–Wall Street Journal poll in late January found Romney’s unfavorability rating among independents had risen twenty points, from 22 to 42 percent, over the previous two months. “It’s not as though they have said Bain has disqualified him or that he can’t be trusted because of his taxes, but this has created a gulf between him and the average voter,” one of the pollsters behind the survey, Peter Hart, told the Washington Post. “Bain and the taxes just reinforce the sense that this person is in a different world.”
Every presidential candidate faces a trade-off between maintaining his viability with independents and catering to his party’s base. The difficulty for Romney is that, even as his appeal to the middle has sharply waned, the lack of enthusiasm for him on the right has remained acute. Even in Florida, where Romney’s fourteen-point victory was broad and sweeping, he was beaten soundly by Gingrich among very conservative voters and strong tea-party adherents.
To a large extent, Romney’s concurrent problems with conservatives and independents are of his own making. His campaign’s incineration of Gingrich in Florida, though perhaps necessary and certainly skillful, also contributed mightily to alienating the center while doing nothing to remedy his main malady in the eyes of conservatives: the absence of a positive message that resonates with them, coupled with a tic-like tendency to commit unforced errors that exacerbate their doubts that he is one of their own. Crystallizing this phenomenon was an episode that took place the morning after Florida, when, on CNN, Romney disgorged another gem: “I’m in this race because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it.”
With these few short sentences in what should have been a moment of triumph for him, Romney managed to send the wrong message to an array of factions. To independent voters, “I’m not concerned about the very poor” sounds callous. To conservative intellectuals and activists, talk about fixing the safety net—as opposed to pursuing policies that enable the poor to free themselves from government dependency—is rank apostasy. And to congressional Republicans, the comment reflected a glaring lack of familiarity with the party’s anti-poverty positions. “Electeds were flabbergasted,” says a veteran K Street player. “Even moderate Republican members, if they’ve been here for more than four months, get dipped in the empowerment agenda.”
A week later, Romney attempted to repair part of the damage with his speech at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference—and promptly put his foot in it again. In an address in which he employed the word conservative or some variation of it 24 times, as if trying to prove he is a member of the tribe through sheer incantation, his use of the adverb severely to express the depth of his conviction raised eyebrows inside and outside the hall. “The most retarded thing I have ever heard a Republican candidate say” was the verdict of one strategist with ample experience in GOP presidential campaigns.
At CPAC in 2008, Romney had used the convocation to announce he was dropping out of the race, as the party was rallying around McCain despite long-held suspicions of him among movement conservatives. Four years later, the rightward drift of the GOP and its shirts-skins fractiousness meant that Romney was still struggling to close the deal. His problems doing so were more, well, severe than his vocabulary—for by then Santorum had achieved liftoff and was streaking across the Republican sky.
The launching pad for Santorum was the trio of states that held contests on February 7: Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri. His sweep of all three was unexpected to everyone but him—Santorum is a confident man—and reflected a grievous miscalculation on the part of Team Romney, which only barely played in Colorado and ignored the other two. “The idiocy to do that with all of the resources they have; there’s no limit to their money,” Rollins says. “It’s that kind of arrogance: ‘We won Florida; it’s over.’ That was four years ago. That’s not this time. This time it’s trench warfare all the way, and somebody’s gonna keep rising up, and it’s now Santorum.”
For many Democrats, the idea of Santorum elevating beyond the level of a punch line is all but inconceivable. The extremeness of the former Pennsylvania senator’s views on social issues—from the out-front homophobia that led him to compare gay sex to “man-on-child, man-on-dog, or whatever the case may be,” to his adamant opposition to contraception and abortion even in cases of rape or incest—have long made him the subject of scorn and ridicule on the left, in the center, and on the Internet. (Even with his newfound fame, the first result of a Google search for his name is spreading santorum.com, a site dealing with “frothy” matters too coarse to discuss in a family magazine, and also in this one.)
But in a Republican-nomination contest, these views are not necessarily liabilities, and are even assets in some quarters—which doesn’t mean Santorum is without vulnerabilities in the context of his party. On spending, earmarks, and labor relations, he is by no means pure in conservative terms. He has been embroiled in ethics issues and is a bone-deep creature of the Beltway. Then there is his personality: “In the Senate as well as his home state, Santorum often struck people as arrogant and headstrong, preachy and judgmental,” writes Byron York in the Washington Examiner. Or, as a Republican lobbyist puts it to me, “When he was in the Senate, he was probably the most friendless guy there.”
That the Romney campaign will hit Santorum hard on virtually all this (and more) is a given; indeed, it already is, holding regular conference calls with surrogates to attack him, outspending him by three to one on TV ads in Michigan (if the super-pacs on each side are included in the totals). “The Romney campaign has realized there’s nothing it can do to communicate Romney’s record in a way that moves the needle, so their focus is on disqualifying Santorum as a plausible nominee and authentic conservative,” says a top GOP operative. “Can Santorum survive the onslaught? Gingrich certainly couldn’t.”
Santorum may be a different story, however—less erratic, less prone to light himself on fire, less saddled with XXXL baggage. “Santorum is a much more sympathetic character than Gingrich,” says the Evangelical leader Richard Land. “If a guy has 57 percent negatives, you can carpet-bomb him with impunity. But if Romney comes out swinging for Santorum, people are going to get angry. It’s a lot harder to demonize him than Gingrich.”
If Santorum can weather the welter of attacks, his combination of governing and ideological bona fides might make him Romney’s bête noire. “The one thing Romney had to avoid that’s a mortal threat to him was an ideological contest with someone who has the credentials to be commander-in-chief,” says Schmidt. “And Santorum, as a three-term member of Congress and two-term senator, clears that hurdle, especially running against a one-term governor. That’s why the race is more wide open now than at any other point before—because Romney is dealing for the first time with a plausible nominee in the eyes of Republican voters, where it’s absolutely impossible to get around his right flank.”
Nowhere is this more true than on social issues, naturally. Whatever risks it might pose in the general election, the controversy over contraceptives, the Catholic Church, and the Obama administration has been an unalloyed blessing for Santorum in the Republican-nomination fight. Popping up unexpectedly, it has shifted what the political sharpies call the “issue matrix” in an awkward direction for Romney and a comfortable one for Santorum, and is likely to help the latter further solidify his already firm hold over a voting bloc with which his rival is notably weak.
Evangelicals and other devout voters are, to be sure, Santorum’s most ardent supporters within the grassroots coalition. He has also demonstrated considerable traction with tea-party supporters, carrying the largest proportion of them in Iowa (29 percent) against four far-right foes. But equally crucial is the non-college-educated, blue-collar vote, which accounts for more than half the electorate in Michigan, as well as Super Tuesday states such as Ohio, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. So far in 2012, Santorum has not done consistently well with this cohort. But between his policy focus on reviving American manufacturing, a biography that includes growing up in Western Pennsylvania steel country and a coal-miner grandfather, and a Joe Six-Pack–meets–Mister Rogers demeanor, he seems well positioned to make inroads here.
If Santorum can consolidate the support of these groups as Gingrich did momentarily in South Carolina, the battle between him and his amalgam of red-hots and Romney and his army of regulars will be pitched—and, depending on what happens on Tuesday in Michigan, maybe bloody and protracted.