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Santorum: the new anti-Romney (for now)

Mitt RomneyElectionsRick SantorumRepublican PartyJoe BidenTea Party Movement

The latest anybody in what could be called the Anybody But Romney Campaign is former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. However, his low-turnout victories in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri say more about the Republican coolness to the Massachusetts moderate yearning to be seen as conservative than about the latest anybody.

The alibi that Mitt Romney didn't campaign much in the three states, and that neither his campaign nor that of his "independent" super PAC threw much money into them, isn't very convincing from strategists who previously boasted about their superior organization and political ground game.

To Mr. Santorum's advantage, he has escaped most of the negative crossfire and the obscene amount of attack advertising between Mr. Romney and fading former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. And he has been able to argue that he is more the true conservative than either of them.

But the advantage of being out of the line of fire is bound to dwindle now that he is perceived as the next anybody-but-Romney. Considering Mr. Santorum's record of a dozen years in the Senate and four in the House before that, both Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich will have ample ammunition with which to target him in the weeks ahead.

Mr. Santorum was well known in Congress as a doctrinaire hothead, flashes of which have been seen in this year's debates. It remains to be seen how he handles the heat in the kitchen of greater prominence he will enjoy. That spotlight has not served either Mr. Romney or Mr. Gingrich very well to date.

In the current phase of the GOP competition, ideological purity figures to help Mr. Santorum with the party's base, especially its many tea party advocates. It is not likely to boost him among independents in a general election, but his campaign can't afford to worry about that consideration right now. Others in the party, however, may want to think about it as they gauge his chances against President Barack Obama in the fall.

As for Mr. Romney, his shift into cruise control after his strong victories in Florida and Nevada may have been a bit premature. His brief visible pivot from Gingrich-bashing back to Obama-slashing, looking ahead to the general election, may have to be put back on hold for a while.

As a result of these essentially minor Santorum successes in backwater contests, the news media will continue its narrative of Mr. Romney as a candidate of wealth and insensitivity toward the plight of the poor. With it, the questions will go on about the sources and methods of his wealth acquisition, and why he can't seem to connect with more voters.

At the same time, the Santorum blips may serve as another wake-up call to Mr. Romney, in the way his shellacking by Mr. Gingrich in the South Carolina primary aroused him and his megabucks allies to turn tiger in Florida. Mitt Romney in heat, however, was not a particularly appealing campaigner, cast against his Mr. Nice Guy type as he was.

Romney and Co. insisted all along that they expected and were prepared for a long slog to the nomination. But after having temporarily achieved a narrow escape in the Iowa caucuses and winning handily in the New Hampshire primary, they could hope to close the deal shortly thereafter.

Now, the scenario of Mr. Romney running the table with more money, more organization and an aura of greater electability against Mr. Obama seems not so inevitable anymore. It may yet prevail, but if it does, Mitt Romney will go into the fall campaign more tarnished than when he started.

An optimistic rationale among Republicans holds that Mr. Obama came out of his 2008 primary fight with Hillary Clinton a stronger candidate. However, that campaign was not nearly as negative and repulsive to voters as this one has been, and this one threatens to get worse the longer it goes on.

Each setback Mr. Romney suffers for being insufficiently conservative may thrill the true believers in the party. But every new demonstration of coolness toward him casts a shadow over the prospect of a broader, less conservative constituency putting him or any Republican in the White House next fall.

Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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