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Why February Could Matter

12:30 AM, Feb 1, 2012 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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I wonder if three features of the race as it stands today aren't being a bit neglected:

Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum

1. Turnout: The Romney-Gingrich slugfest in Florida appears to have produced slightly fewer than 1.7 million voters in this year's primary. That's down by about 12 percent from the 1.94 million who voted in 2008. Not a good sign for the GOP in this key swing state, especially following a flat GOP turnout in Iowa and only a slight uptick in New Hampshire (also swing states). Both of those states have open primaries, so with no Democratic contest this year, in contrast to 2008, one might have expected a substantial jump in participation.

2. February: There's been a fair amount of commentary to the effect February won't matter much--it's a lull, a break in the action, etc. That's not so clear. February will see 187 delegates selected compared with 115 in January's contests. Two dates in particular will matter: February 7, with caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado (40 and 36 delegates, respectively), and a beauty contest primary in Missouri as well; and February 28, with primaries in Michigan and Arizona (30 and 29 delegates).

3. Rick Santorum: There's lots of speculation as to Gingrich's chances to mount a comeback against Romney, the clear frontrunner. But what if Newt's campaign collapses? What if he's simply jumped the shark with the "Holocaust survivors" robocall? (The call charged that the former Massachusetts governor once "vetoed a bill paying for kosher food for our seniors in nursing homes--Holocaust survivors, who for the first time, were forced to eat non-kosher, because Romney thought $5 was too much to pay for our grandparents to eat kosher.")

What if Santorum does as well or better than Gingrich in the Nevada caucuses Saturday, or in the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses next Tuesday? What if Santorum is competitive with Romney in the Missouri beauty contest primary next Tuesday, where Gingrich isn't on the ballot? Couldn't non-Romney voters begin to move nationally from Gingrich to Santorum? Couldn't populist and Tea Party leaders like Sarah Palin do so as well?

In the Gallup tracking poll today, Gingrich is at 28 percent, Romney at 27, and Santorum at 17. Romney will surely move up several points over the next few days--but couldn't Gingrich fall enough and Santorum rise enough that Santorum's number approaches or passes Gingrich? Couldn't Santorum move into second place?

In sum: Could we be heading towards a Romney-Santorum contest on February 28 in Michigan and Arizona, and then in March and beyond? Romney would certainly be a strong favorite in such a contest, given his lead in votes, delegates, money and organization. But wouldn't Santorum ultimately have a better chance than Gingrich to upset Romney, even if it's still a slim one?

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