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The Santorum Scenario

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3. Survive April, thrive in May. After Illinois and Louisiana, the race heads into a stretch that shapes up extremely well for Romney. Of the eight contests on the calendar in April—the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Wisconsin on the third, and Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island on the 24th—only the one in Santorum’s home state looks like a sure winner for him. For the challenger, this will be the harshest month for sure, one in which Romney will not only rack up a raft of wins but widen his delegate lead. For Santorum to emerge alive, I think, will require him to carry one significant state that he’s not expected to; his best chance is Wisconsin.

If Santorum can manage that, however, the month of May could be almost as kind to him as April is cruel. In a delegate-strategy memo the Santorum campaign released recently to the press, it maintained, “We believe that May 8 is the beginning of the end for Mitt Romney and the date that puts Rick Santorum on a path to the nomination.” And while this wildly overstates the case, there is something to it. Assuming voters still see him as viable, all of the following states with contests in May are ones that Santorum could plausibly win: Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Nebraska, North Carolina, Texas, and West Virginia. (The sole bright spot for Romney in May: Oregon.)

4. Pull off a June surprise. For Romney, the California and New Jersey primaries on June 5, together with the contest in Utah at the end of the month, have long been seen as a kind of final firewall. For Santorum, they represent a last chance to upset expectations and put a dent in Romney’s narrative of algebraic inevitability and his delegate accumulation. There are other states voting in June where Santorum might fare well: South Dakota, Montana, and New Mexico. But for him to have a reasonable chance at claiming the nomination in Tampa, he will probably need to pull off a shocker—and judging from my conversation with Brabender, California will be the place where his team tries to do it.

5. Harvest grassroots gold in Tampa—and before. Until recently, Santorum’s campaign had no delegate-counting or delegate-­wrangling operation whatsoever. It does now, and its ability to execute will be key to Santorum’s prospects if everything else outlined above somehow materializes. In its delegate-strategy memo, Santorum’s squad rightly points out that in many cases the selection of representatives to the national convention takes place not in the primaries and caucuses (which are often just “beauty contests”) but at county, district, and state conventions, “where activists are more conservative than the average primary voter.”

Santorum’s people hope to make headway at those conventions, not only adding to their delegate totals but also filling the Tampa convention hall with delegates inclined to jump ship on Romney after the first ballot (assuming that he arrives there with fewer than the magic 1,144 in his back pocket). “Mitt Romney must have a majority on the first ballot in order to win the nomination,” the memo states, “because he will perform worse on the subsequent ballots as grassroots conservative delegates decide to back the more conservative candidate. Subsequently, Santorum only needs to be relatively close on the initial ballot in order to win on a later ballot as Romney’s support erodes.”

All this may sound like a fantasy—or at least a piece of highly Hollywoodized political fiction—only given credence by a bunch of journalistic hacks whose fondest dream is to experience a contested national convention. (I’m looking at me here.) But then again, everything about Santorum’s rise has had about it more than a faint whiff of the fantastical. “I guarantee you that last July the Romney folks weren’t sitting around planning for a future in which they’d be fighting one-on-one all through this spring against Rick Santorum,” Brabender says. “Nobody thought that.” And if the unthinkable has already happened, why couldn’t it happen again—with or without any intercession from the guy or gal upstairs?

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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