The Magazine

Taking Aim at Santorum

The Romney campaign misfires.

Feb 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 22 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

On Saturday, February 4, a national poll from Rasmussen Reports showed Rick Santorum as the only Republican to lead President Obama in a head-to-head matchup. The next morning, a PPP poll showed Santorum suddenly leading Mitt Romney in Minnesota. So the Romney campaign responded with what are becoming its trademark tactics. Having completely ignored Santorum since New Hampshire, on Sunday afternoon the Romney team sent out a press release calling him “a proud defender of earmarks and pork-barrel spending.” The email contained an oppo-dump of news stories and quotes designed to make Santorum look like a latter-day Ted Stevens.

Cartoon of Mitt Romney shooting at a target

DAVE MALAN

On Monday a PPP poll was released with more good news for Santorum: It showed him with a 13-point lead in Missouri. So the Romney campaign became more aggressive. Before the clock struck 2:00 p.m., the campaign had sent out four more press releases attacking Santorum. The first labeled Santorum’s criticisms of Romneycare “falsehoods.” The second announced that Romney surrogate Tim Pawlenty would be holding a conference call to discuss “Santorum’s long-history of pork-barrel spending.” The third was a summary of the Pawlenty call. (Sample: “[Santorum] has been a champion of earmarks, and to hold himself out now as somebody who is an unquestionable conservative in these matters, just is not supported by the facts.”) The fourth was a reminder that Santorum had endorsed Romney in 2008. Or at least it was an excerpt of Santorum’s endorsement. It elided the language which, back in 2008, made it clear that Santorum was coming to Romney as a conservative-of-last-resort.

Over the following days, the Romney campaign pushed forth these little missives at a brisk clip, some with inane conceits. In one, Romney surrogate Jason Chaffetz criticized Santorum for voting in favor of debt-ceiling increases in the late ’90s and early ’00s—which no one, at that time or since, has argued were ill-conceived. (In 2003 and 2004, for example, with the lone exception of John Ensign, only Senate Democrats opposed the increases—making this an exceedingly unreliable litmus test of conservatism.) Chaffetz also suggested that Pennsylvania voters replaced Santorum with a Democrat in 2006 because he was not reliably conservative. In another, sent out the day after Santorum whipped Romney in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado, the Romney campaign labeled Santorum “a Washington insider” because he said the following: “There’s not a management problem in Washington, D.C., all right?”

Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul claimed that this sentence demonstrated that “Rick Santorum says that there is not a problem with the way the federal government is being led. That is ridiculous and again proves why conservatives can’t trust a Washington insider to fix the problems that Washington insiders created.”

In context the Santorum quote reads somewhat differently. What Santorum actually said was,

There’s not a management problem in Washington, all right. There’s a more foundational problem there that goes to the basic concepts of who we are as a people. And those are deeply moral questions.

In other words, Santorum was arguing that the trouble with Washington isn’t merely managerial, but runs deeper.

And Team Romney wonders why people aren’t excited about his candidacy.

As an organism, the Romney campaign always attacks when threatened, and Santorum’s victories in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado were threatening.

There were no delegates at stake in Missouri, yet Romney wasn’t simply beaten in the exhibition. He was crushed, losing by 30 points. Santorum has no ties to Missouri and the state isn’t an outlier, like Louisiana or West Virginia, with electoral peculiarities. As far as demographics and culture are concerned, it might as well be Ohio. The Romney campaign’s explanation for the loss was that they didn’t campaign in Missouri.

They did work hard in Colorado, though. And more striking than Romney’s 5-point loss to Santorum there was his caucus total. In 2008, 42,218 Coloradans caucused for Romney. This year the number dropped by almost half, to 23,012. Romney made less of an effort in Minnesota, but if anything, the results there were the most problematic: He went from 25,990 caucus supporters in 2008 to 8,222 this time around.

Recent Blog Posts