Allahpundit hinted at this last night, and this morning Public Policy Polling released its data.  Rick Santorum has ridden the wave of his Tuesday sweep to a strong national lead among Republican voters.  PPP calls Santorum the emerging “consensus candidate”:

Riding a wave of momentum from his trio of victories on Tuesday Rick Santorum has opened up a wide lead in PPP’s newest national poll. He’s at 38% to 23% for Mitt Romney, 17% for Newt Gingrich, and 13% for Ron Paul.

Part of the reason for Santorum’s surge is his own high level of popularity. 64% of voters see him favorably to only 22% with a negative one. But the other, and maybe more important, reason is that Republicans are significantly souring on both Romney and Gingrich. Romney’s favorability is barely above water at 44/43, representing a 23 point net decline from our December national poll when he was +24 (55/31). Gingrich has fallen even further. A 44% plurality of GOP voters now hold a negative opinion of him to only 42% with a positive one. That’s a 34 point drop from 2 months ago when he was at +32 (60/28).

Santorum is now completely dominating with several key segments of the electorate, especially the most right leaning parts of the party. With those describing themselves as ‘very conservative,’ he’s now winning a majority of voters at 53% to 20% for Gingrich and 15% for Romney.  Santorum gets a majority with Tea Party voters as well at 51% to 24% for Gingrich and 12% for Romney. And with Evangelicals he falls just short of a majority with 45% to 21% for Gingrich and 18% for Romney.

It used to be that Gingrich was leading with all these groups and Romney was staying competitive enough with them to hold the overall lead. No more- a consensus conservative candidate finally seems to be emerging and it’s Santorum.

That’s quite a shift over the last week, and it suggests that the Republican electorate was not satisfied with either Romney or Gingrich.  Santorum’s favorability is much higher than either at +38; Gingrich, who had been the alternative to a Romney nomination among conservatives and Tea Party activists has a -2, and Romney a +1.  That has to be part of the driving force behind Santorum’s rise.  To the extent that’s true, it’s a potential weakness for Santorum, who will now be the subject of attacks from both camps now that they have to take him seriously as a contender. His favorability could erode under a concerted attack, although at this point it might push both of his competitors further into negative territory as well.

Still, if conservative Republicans want a consolidation candidate, PPP shows that Santorum would be effective in that role.  Taking Gingrich out of the equation, Santorum beats Romney almost 2:1 at 50/28, with Paul getting just 15%.  Taking Paul out of the equation as well, Santorum tops Romney 56/32.

Gingrich has already begun to hit Santorum for being just like Mitt Romney. The Washington Times interviewed Gingrich at CPAC, and he tied the two together as lacking boldness and being too beholden to the establishment to bring real change to Washington. Will voters buy Gingrich as an anti-Beltway, anti-establishment candidate after spending the last 30 years in Washington DC, especially after Gingrich’s sojourn on the love seat with Nancy Pelosi? Possibly, and Gingrich certainly gives it his best sales pitch here:

Whether or not one agrees with Gingrich on the merits of this argument, this is the kind of attack he needs to use. It’s not nasty or personal, and it fits with his overall theme and the desires of the conservative base. Had he kept that kind of discipline against Romney, Santorum may never have gotten this surge in the first place.