The sweater-vest was gone when Rick Santorum took the stage in a high-school auditorium in Windham, New Hampshire, on the frosty Thursday night before the state’s Republican primary—but that was arguably the least striking change to the milieu surrounding the former Pennsylvania senator since his shock-the-world virtual tie in Iowa with Republican front-runner Mitt Romney. Just three days earlier, on the eve of the caucuses, Santorum would have been thrilled to find a hundred voters at one of his events; now there were seven or eight times that many in the house. For months, Santorum had crisscrossed the cornfields of the Hawkeye State, ignored by the national press; now he was greeted by an army of reporters and an armada of TV cameras. His once-barren campaign bank account was suddenly overflowing, with $2 million having arrived in the space of 48 hours.
Santorum began by relating a piece of advice given him months earlier by the state’s former governor John Sununu: “He says New Hampshire will break late, and I’m sorta counting on that right now.” No kidding. In the most recent public poll at press time, the gap between the two stood at 30 points. In the days ahead, Santorum intended to mount the same kind of balls-to-the-wall retail campaign that worked so well for him in Iowa, staging two or three or even four times as many events a day as his rivals.
Yet few sane analysts believed that Santorum (or anyone else) had much chance of overtaking Romney in the Granite State, and neither, really, did Santorum or his people. Instead, the ultracon upstart was playing to exceed expectations, along with doing whatever he could to induce Romney to fall short of them. For Santorum and the rest of the would-be Republican usurpers, in other words, New Hampshire was just a prelude to the coming war for South Carolina, whose primary takes place on January 21. If history holds, no contest will be more important to the outcome of the GOP nomination fight. Since 1980, every one of the party’s eventual standard-bearers has carried South Carolina, and this year the state’s must-win status is even more pronounced—for if Romney, having already finished first in Iowa and New Hampshire, were then to take the Palmetto State, the likelihood of halting his march to the Republican nomination would be close to nonexistent.
What will be required for Santorum—or Newt Gingrich or Rick Perry—to win in South Carolina and live to fight another day is clear enough: consolidate the stubborn opposition to Romney among hard-core conservatives, from tea-partyers to Evangelicals. That Santorum sees the challenge in just this way was evident in a fund-raising appeal he issued after Iowa. “Dear Patriot,” the missive began. “It’s Now or Never for Conservative voters. We can either unite behind one candidate … or have the GOP establishment choose another moderate Republican … a bland, boring career politician who will lose to Barack Obama.”
For any number of reasons, the chances of the anti-Romney forces putting all their wood behind one arrowhead—especially any of these arrowheads, all of whom would have trouble piercing a wad of cotton, let alone a suit of armor—is small, and yet still not quite zero. More to the point, the effort on the right to take Romney down will test him in a fashion that he has so far been miraculously lucky to have avoided. How he responds will tell us much about him and even more about the larger battle looming in the fall.
The emergence of Santorum as the most plausible stalking horse for his party’s loose but ardent ABR (Anyone But Romney) coalition has taken much of the political class by surprise—and no one more so than me. Having known Santorum since 1994, when I spent a week with him during his first run for Senate, I’ll admit that I have always liked him personally despite his holding a set of views that range from appalling (his undeniable homophobia) to apocalyptically dangerous (his out-front commitment to launch air strikes at Iran). At his town-hall meetings in the run-up to Iowa, his political defects were vividly on display: the mirthless, digressive, painfully dull answers, replete with endless and pointless reminiscence, that fairly compel the application of the most deadly adjective available in American politics—senatorial.
Then, at his penultimate event, at a Pizza Ranch in Newton the night before the caucuses, Santorum was asked about some criticism leveled at him over how he and his wife, Karen, handled the death in 1996 of their infant son, Gabriel, after she miscarried: They brought the dead child home so their “children could see him,” as Santorum put it; so they could “know they had a brother.” Choking back tears—as Karen, standing beside him, let hers flow—Santorum told the story and then chastised those who would attack them for it. “To some who don’t recognize the dignity of all human life, who see it as a blob of tissue that should be discarded and disposed of, [what we did] is somehow weird,” he said. “Recognizing the humanity of your son is somehow weird, somehow odd, and should be subject to ridicule.”
Say what you will about Santorum and his wife’s ardent pro-life views and how they chose to process their grief over losing their son. The sincerity and depth of the candidate’s feelings on the subject are indisputable, and the moment at the Newton Pizza Ranch was a moving display of his humanity. This is no small part of the attraction that some voters feel for Santorum: There is scarcely a shred of slickness or phoniness about him—something that cannot be said of his rivals, and, indeed, a quality that is the opposite of the perceived plasticity that disturbs many Republicans about Romney. And it is this authenticity of Santorum’s, alongside the fervency of his religious commitment and adamancy of his cultural conservatism, that accounts for his eight-votes-short-of-first-place finish in Iowa.