SANTORUM'S PRAIRIE FIRE: With upset victories, is he the real anti-Mitt?

Posted: February 08, 2012

RICK SANTORUM, prairie dog!

The political brushfire that the former Pennsylvania senator set in the cornfields of the Iowa caucuses last month - only to peter out in the moderate Atlantic breezes of New Hampshire and Florida - was rekindled yesterday with upset wins in Missouri's primary and Minnesota's caucuses.

And in the Colorado caucuses, with almost half the precincts reporting, Santorum had a commanding lead over Mitt Romney, as the champion of social conservatism pushed for what would be a stunning hat trick.

But does Santorum's hard-won popularity with religious fundamentalists in the American Heartland make it now a two-man race with Romney - the delegate leader and still the overwhelming choice of the GOP establishment?

Or does the Pennsylvanian's lack of money and organization - and the fact that last night's victories won't translate to many delegates (zero in Missouri, where the vote was a "beauty contest") - mean that last night was just a right-wing temper tantrum on Romney's road to the nomination?

Those who know Santorum best aren't sure, but they said yesterday's success was a tribute to the tenacity of a candidate who was working the megachurches of suburban Minneapolis on Super Bowl Sunday while Romney took the day off to watch football.

"He believes - and he believes in himself more than anybody else believes in him," said Jon Delano, the politics editor at Pittsburgh's KDKA, who has watched Santorum since his upset win of a congressional seat in 1990. "That's fundamentally Rick Santorum and why he's been so successful.

Here are some major takeaways from Santorum's second surge:

The new anti-Mitt? The hardcore GOP base - older, white, evangelical, and sympathetic to the tea-party movement - continues to look for an alternative to the former Massachusetts governor, and so last night's Santorum wins could spell big trouble for the other "not-Romney," Newt Gingrich.

Since winning the South Carolina primary, the former House speaker has had a horrendous two weeks and was nearly invisible yesterday. The Georgian is pinning his hopes on a last stand in more-conservative Southern states that vote on "Super Tuesday" March 6, but Santorum's momentum may make it impossible for Gingrich to get his groove back.

Santorum's road to Tampa: Pundits said his best chances in the weeks ahead to pick up delegates and make his case for the nomination may come in two Rust Belt primaries: Ohio on Super Tuesday and here in Pennsylvania on April 24. Some pundits think that Santorum's appeal to blue-collar Catholics could undercut Romney.

Delano said that Santorum's "deeply held Catholic faith" is a huge boost in those states.

Romney's weak appeal: Last night's setbacks for the perceived front-runner - coupled with a new national poll that showed his support actually dropping slightly among Republican primary voters - surely will send a new wave of panic through party elders. So far, Romney's wins have been heavily aided by local factors, including his personal ties in New Hampshire and a large Mormon vote in Nevada.

"My sense is that the longer it goes on, the worse it is for the Republicans," said G. Terry Madonna, the political scientist and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College, who said that a prolonged race will drain the money that the eventual nominee will need in the fall against President Obama.

Running for vice president? Even if Romney reasserts control of the GOP race in the spring, Santorum's surprising success in Midwestern swing states bolsters an argument that he deserves the second spot on the ticket.

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