The ABR Underground

Illustration by André Carrilho

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.

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.

What happens then? One way or another, Romney eventually finds his way to securing the nomination, of course. (A girl can dream, but she shouldn’t be mixing mescaline and bathtub gin, which is sorta what you have to do to envision any other outcome at this point.) The salient question, however, is how he gets there. Quickly, easily, and fairly unscathed—or having suffered weeks or months of taxing contests in which his one-on-one opponent is a walking, talking advertisement for sincerity, conviction, and regular guyhood, and thus serves to illustrate by contrast many Romney qualities that the president’s reelection team will be hellbent to highlight in the fall.

All of which is why South Carolina matters so much to Mitt Romney. And also why the past week yielded a circumstance that heretofore would have seemed about as likely as me winning a Nobel Prize: Barack Obama’s ascension to the (temporary) captaincy of the Rick Santorum Fan Club.


The ABR Underground