A good night for Rick Santorum

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Michael Barone

In my Examiner column a week ago, written as the news of Mitt Romney’s big victory in Florida was coming in, I said that it was very likely that we would look back on that night as the moment when Romney clinched the Republican nomination. But I added that “Romney is by no means assured of a sweep of the relatively few February contests.”

That judgment looks pretty good tonight. Romney did win by a solid margin in Saturday’s Nevada caucuses, though overall turnout was down from 2008. But tonight he has lost the Missouri primary (where Newt Gingrich is not on the ballot) and Minnesota caucuses. And as I write the result is unclear in the Colorado caucuses, which Romney won in 2008 by a 60%-18% margin over John McCain.

That said, it has to be noted that, as the Romney campaign pointed out in a memo from strategist Rich Beeson today, none of the contests today results in the election of any delegates. In Missouri, as I write, Rick Santorum leads Romney by a 55%-25% margin. Four years ago, Romney won 29%, finishing only narrowly behind John McCain’s 33% and Mike Huckabee’s 32%.

Romney tonight is running behind his 2008 percentages in metro St. Louis and Kansas City, which produced almost half the votes in 2008, and running only about even with his poor 2008 showing in Southern-accented rural counties. This shows some weakness, some lack of affirmative support, for Romney this year. And it’s a nice showing for Santorum. But it has to be added that in 2008 Missouri was a contest that mattered very much. It was held on Super Tuesday, when the nomination was undetermined, and it was fiercely and seriously contested by three candidates and it was a winner-take-all contest for 58 delegates. The fact that McCain won those delegates and those in many other Super Tuesday contests, albeit often and very much in the case of Missouri by a very narrow margin, cinched the nomination for McCain.

This year, Romney didn’t campaign in Missouri, while Santorum, eyeing a clear opening with Gingrich not on the ballot, did. Santorum’s showing is a positive sign for him, and may well propel him ahead of Gingrich as Romney’s serious rival. But Missouri voters clearly showed they did not regard this as a serious contest. In 2008 some 588,000 Missourians voted in the Republican primary. This year, with 96% of precincts reporting, only 231,000 votes have been cast, less than half as many as when the primary counted toward electing delegates.

Santorum also seems to have prevailed in the Minnesota caucuses. In 2008, Romney won here with 41%, with 22% for McCain, 20% for Huckabee and 16% for Ron Paul. Now, with 35% of precincts reporting, Santorum leads with 46%, to 27% for Paul, 16% (only 16%!) for Romney and 11% (only 11%!) for Gingrich. Turnout seems comparable to last time: 22,000 with 35% of precincts reporting, compared to 62,000 in 2008.

This is an impressive victory for Santorum. But it comes in a state where the body of people who participate regularly in Republican caucuses, in offyears as well as presidential years, is tilted heavily to strong right-to-life advocates—a strong constituency for Santorum this year. The caucuses were never a source of great support for Romney backer former Governor Tim Pawlenty; his kind of Republicans did much better in the much-larger-turnout primaries. Generally people don’t come to caucuses unless they know their friends are going to be there too; that clearly helped Santorum in a contest that did not determine any national convention delegates.  

As I write, Rick Santorum is speaking and making an interesting case against Barack Obama—that he does not listen to the American people. A smart line. Then he goes on to say that on some critical issues Mitt Romney has the same positions as Barack Obama. He says he is not “the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, but the conservative alternative to Barack Obama.” A very attractive way of putting it, and elevating him above intrapartisan squabbles to portray himself as Romney did on Florida primary night as the chief opponent of Barack Obama. (He’s pronouncing the state’s name as Missourah, as most Missourians outside metro St. Louis do.)

“I care about 100% of America”: another good line. And his peroration condemning the Obama administration’s decree that Catholic institutions must violate their religious beliefs was strong. Santorum’s victory in these delegate-less contests gave him an opportunity to speak to Republicans and others across the country as a winner and a challenger of Barack Obama, and he made the most of it: an impressive performance.

Has Rick Santorum replaced Newt Gingrich as the number two candidate in the Republican race? Has Santorum established himself as a spirited and articulate challenger to Mitt Romney? With only 1% of the Colorado results in, showing Santorum ahead but unlikely to be indicative of the whole state, it looks like the answers to these two questions are both yes.

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Michael Barone

Senior Political Analyst
The Washington Examiner