So says Stephen Hayes, reporting for the Weekly Standard. If he’s right, then your final three for the Republican presidential nomination are the guy who came up with RomneyCare, the guy who got blown out in Pennsylvania by almost 20 points five years ago, and Ron Paul.

Second look at seppuku?

A CNN poll of registered Iowa Republicans released Wednesday puts Santorum in third place with 16 percent of the vote – his highest share yet. It’s not an outlier. In fact, data from Perry’s internal daily tracking polling shows that the Santorum surge is real and that he has the potential to continue gaining in the days before voters gather for the caucuses next Tuesday.

The polling was described to TWS by a strategist for a rival campaign and confirmed by a source familiar with the numbers. The four important takeaways from Perry’s polling: Mitt Romney is “pulling away” from a group of four second-tier candidates bunched together behind him; Ron Paul’s numbers have dropped steadily in the aftermath of the attention given his troubling newsletters; Santorum’s rise has coincided with the erosion of support for Newt Gingrich; and Michele Bachmann is in danger of becoming a non-factor in the race…

One number Team Romney is watching carefully is Bachmann’s. According to a senior Iowa Republican, Romney’s team is concerned that if her support dips below 8-10 percent of the vote – where she’s been hanging in recent weeks – Santorum could present Romney with a real challenge. And further erosion for Bachmann could happen. On Wednesday, her campaign chairman defected to Ron Paul’s campaign and now a Super Pac that was once supporting her candidacy is backing Romney.

If Romney’s pulling away then I’m not sure why it matters who’s surging and who isn’t. That said, the point about Bachmann’s fade is interesting and timely given that she lost another senior staffer today: Romney (and Paul) need to divide the social-con candidates in order to conquer, so if Santorum is emerging from that bracket, then the best hope for the “Anyone But Mitt” diehards out there is for Gingrich, Perry, and Bachmann to fold ASAP. Bachmann will quit after Iowa, I think, but the other two will soldier on — potentially to Romney’s benefit and Santorum’s detriment in South Carolina.

One more detail about Bachmann, via Politico: The long-held suspicions that she’s been going easy on Mitt and hard on his opponents because she covets the VP spot are … confirmed.

She repeatedly passed up opportunities to ding Mitt Romney in the debates — a product, Rollins said, of preserving her options for sharing a ticket with him.

“There was some talk early on between her and her husband that she could end up as the vice presidential nominee,” Rollins said.

I’ve argued before that she couldn’t possibly seriously think Romney would put her on the ticket, but there you go. Strange days, my friends. Meanwhile, the good news for Santorum is that he’s in for a weekend full of sunny press and then, if he wins, another week after that in the run-up to New Hampshire. The media loves a cinderella story and political journalists find it gratifying to see his old-school Iowa strategy — camp out, hit all 99 counties, press the flesh — paying off. He’s their guy, right up until the moment when he starts to look like he has an outside shot at the nomination, when they’ll turn on him as some sort of “American Taliban” holy warrior or whatever. For a sharper critique, read Erick Erickson’s take on Santorum as more of a “pro-life statist” than a conservative. Reason enough not to prefer him to Mitt?

Here’s Perry’s ad taking aim at the new social conservative frontrunner; Santorum’s allies are already punching back. Just think, if all goes according to Romney’s plan in Iowa, we’ll be spending next Wednesday batting around suggestions for who should primary him four years from now. Exit question: In 2008, two-thirds of the party didn’t like the nominee. This year, three-quarters don’t. When do we get someone who can excite a majority of Republicans?