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The ABR Underground

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In New Hampshire, though, God-squadders are much thinner on the ground; the state’s brand of conservatism is rooted in matters fiscal and a generic distrust of all things federal. Back in 1996, of course, Pat Buchanan beat the Establishment favorite, Bob Dole, in the Granite State, creating a precedent that Santorum is now trying to replicate: the stitching together of a coalition of economically stressed blue-collar voters and a smaller bloc of anti-abortion Catholics.

The troubles with this plan are threefold, however. First, the number of manufacturing jobs in the state has declined precipitously, undercutting a central element of Santorum’s economic pitch. Second, when it comes to populism, let’s just say that Santorum is no Buchanan; he is more likely to spend ten minutes learnedly parsing E pluribus unum than rallying the peasants to take up their pitchforks. And third, unlike Buchanan, who artfully played down his culture-warrior side in New Hampshire, Santorum finds it impossible not to stray into heavenly territory. In Windham, a question about the Veterans Affairs department somehow led him to mention a radio interviewer who he said had told him, “We don’t need a Jesus candidate—we need an economic candidate.” “My answer to that,” Santorum proudly replied, “was that we always need a Jesus candidate!”

Curdled-milky as talk like this goes down the throats of New Hampshirites, it will be swallowed smilingly, as if it were ambrosia, by many in South Carolina, where fully 60 percent of Republican primary voters in 2008 identified themselves as Evangelical. And so, too, in a state heavy with veterans and military tradition, will Santorum’s sharply hawkish views on foreign policy sit well. But in trying to attract both those sets of voters, along with the state’s many tea-partyers (please recall that South Carolina’s junior senator is Jim DeMint), Santorum will face competition from Gingrich and ­Perry—unless, that is, the ABR forces can forge a consensus to coalesce around him. Over the weekend of January 14 and 15, a group of prominent movement-­conservative leaders, including Gary Bauer, James Dobson, and Donald Wildmon, were scheduled to meet to discuss the topic, while at the same time, both DeMint and Sarah Palin are said to be weighing the possibility of endorsing Santorum (or someone else) before the voting starts in South Carolina.

As my colleague Jonathan Chait wrote recently on this website, the goals of the Romney resistance appear to be twofold. On the one hand, there are those who want mainly to force him to move to the right on matters of policy and politics and are disturbed that he has thus far been largely able to resist. On the other are those who believe he must be defeated, on the grounds that Romney in 2012 amounts to John McCain in 2008—a man of no genuine conservative conviction who will fail to inspire the Republican base and then be thumped by the incumbent president.

For Obama, seeing Romney pushed far rightward would be a gift that keeps on giving—seeing him whacked entirely would be like a lifetime of Christmases occurring all at once. It’s perfectly possible, to be sure, that neither will occur. That the ABR forces will turn out to be all hat, no cattle. That the curious decision of Perry to remain in the race after hinting that he would exit, along with Gingrich’s inability to play second fiddle, will help fracture the opposition in South Carolina, handing a narrow victory to Romney. Indeed, in a new Time-CNN poll, Romney leads there by a margin of 37 to 19 percent for Santorum, 18 for Gingrich, 12 for Ron Paul, and 5 for Perry.

There is, however, another scenario, one that tantalizingly revolves around Gingrich’s rage over the mortal strafing he took at the hands of Romney’s super-PAC in Iowa. Talking to conservative radio host Laura Ingraham the other day, Gingrich expressed enthusiasm over the notion of teaming up with Santorum to take down Romney. “Absolutely, of course,” he said. “Rick and I have a twenty-year friendship; we’re both rebels; we both came into this business as reformers; we both dislike deeply the way the Establishment sells out the American people. If you take [the support for] Santorum, Perry, Bachmann, and Gingrich, you get some sense of what a small minority Romney really represents.”

Though Gingrich the next day suggested that he sees Santorum as the “junior partner” in any such alliance, I suspect that he is likely to change his tune after New Hampshire—assuming, of course, that he does as poorly as public polls suggest and Santorum finishes strongly. So now imagine that Gingrich, while staying in the race, effectively endorses Santorum, essentially pledging to play the bad cop (i.e., sticking an icepick in Romney’s eye socket over the airwaves and in debates) and let Santorum play the good. With Bachmann out and Perry crippled, Santorum wins South Carolina and in so doing emerges as the legitimate right-wing, ABR alternative to Romney.


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