Santorum's million-dollar moment

Rick Santorum headed to New Hampshire with a new lease on his political life, having come within eight votes of a seemingly impossible win in Iowa’s caucuses on Tuesday.  His sudden rise to the top tier has also given Santorum more confidence — and a new bounty of resources:

Campaign Manager Mike Biundo, in attendance at the town hall held at a senior center, said the campaign has collected about $1 million since falling to Romney in Iowa by just 8 votes in the opening round of the Republican presidential primaries.

Santorum told the crowd that they should not believe that another candidate — a clear reference to Romney — is more electable than he.

“What would give you that impression?” he asked. “When has that candidate ever run as a conservative and gotten any votes? Never. So why would you assume he’s the most electable? Because he raises the most money?…Don’t buy the media hype. Don’t buy the line that you have to be a moderate to be able to win the election.”

He said Americans are looking for “bold colors, not pale pastels.”

“Lead and be bold, because this is not a time for us to shrink,” he said.

But can Santorum win the nomination?  Romney has worked New Hampshire for months, in the same way that Santorum worked Iowa, and with a lot more organization on the ground.  Santorum plans to work hard in the Granite State this week, while Rick Perry skips it and proceeds to South Carolina for a last-ditch effort to become the social conservative rallying point.  Santorum will need South Carolina to make the case that he can go the distance against Romney, but a good showing in New Hampshire might build his stock more in the Palmetto State than a few extra rallies would.

George Will is cautiously, and perhaps uncharacteristically, optimistic about Santorum’s chances, and argues that Santorum injects a quality that has been missing in the race so far:

Rick Santorum has become central because Iowa Republicans ignored an axiom that is as familiar as it is false: Democrats fall in love, and Republicans fall in line. Republicans, supposedly hierarchical, actually are — let us say the worst — human. They crave fun. Supporting Mitt Romney still seems to many like a duty, the responsible thing to do. Suddenly, supporting Santorum seems like a lark, partly because a week or so ago he could quit complaining about media neglect and start having fun, which is infectious. …

Santorum exemplifies a conservative aspiration born about the time he was born in 1958. Frank Meyer, a founding editor of William F. Buckley’s National Review in 1955, postulated the possibility, and necessity, of “fusionism,” a union of social conservatives and those of a more libertarian, free-market bent.

If the Republicans’ binary choice has arrived, and if new technologies of communication and fundraising are repealing some traditional impediments to fluidity in political competition, Santorum can hope to win the nomination. Yes, in 2006, a ghastly year for Republicans (who lost 30 seats and control of the House, and six Senate seats), Santorum lost by 17 points in his bid for a third term. But, then, Richard Nixon was defeated for governor of California six years before being elected president, carrying California.

Even if Santorum is not nominated, he might galvanize a constituency that makes him a vice presidential choice. For Obama, getting to 270 electoral votes without Pennsylvania’s 20 is problematic. But so, just now, are Republican prospects of getting to 270 with their narrowing choice of candidates.

But can he get to the nomination in time to keep Romney from wrapping it up early?  That really depends on the rest of the field, as I write in my column today at The Fiscal Times:

Consolidation will happen eventually, of course, through the brute force of attrition as campaigns fail.  Will it happen quickly enough to put Romney at a disadvantage?  Romney has a solid polling lead in the 40s in New Hampshire, and should sail through that test unscathed, making him the first non-incumbent Republican to win both Iowa and New Hampshire in decades.  Newt Gingrich leads in South Carolina polling, but the latest numbers are from three weeks ago, before his fall to fourth place in Iowa.  If Perry, Gingrich, and Santorum split the conservative vote in South Carolina, Romney could find victory in the 25 percent range – and then make an appeal to Florida voters for the intervening ten days to end the nomination race in January and focus money and effort on beating Barack Obama instead.

Gingrich understands this game plan.  Yesterday, he told conservative talk-show host Laura Ingraham that he would team up with Santorum to defeat Romney, if Santorum wanted to build a no-Mitt alliance.  It’s unclear whether Gingrich sees himself or Santorum as the lead candidate in that alliance, but given Gingrich’s legendary ambition, Santorum can reasonably assume that the lead candidate won’t be named Rick.  Between the two of them, though, they will still be at an organizational disadvantage to Romney and Paul, both of whom have spent the last five years pursuing this opportunity.

A three-way race will make it tough for Romney to win with a 25 percent ceiling.  Having four or five candidates changes that calculation, even if it’s just for the next few weeks.  If conservatives don’t find a way to consolidate behind a single candidate, Romney may not need to transcend that ceiling to build enough momentum to win the nomination early.

Part of the problem is Ron Paul, and the increased draw he has in this cycle.  After his third-place finish in Iowa, he’s unlikely to threaten as the nominee, but his presence splits the field.  Neither Romney nor Santorum would get Paul voters, but Romney has been careful not to antagonize the Paul contingent.  That’s playing long ball, of course, as Romney wants to keep Paul from leaving the GOP this year and taking those voters with him.  If it was just Paul, Santorum, and Romney, though, the rest of the conservative movement could consolidate behind Santorum and perhaps beat Romney, although that’s really an untested hypothesis.  We don’t know that the rest of the conservatives from other candidates would line up behind any of the other options, or if they would look at electability first and go to Romney; we’re just assuming that.

But as long as the other options remain in the race, they will split the vote, and that makes it possible to sweep the first three events and go to Florida with the inevitability argument, as well as the big organization to deliver that message.  If that happens, one can easily see Jeb Bush jumping into the fray with an endorsement that settles the race in the Sunshine State and wraps up the primaries before February.  So far, no one except Michele Bachmann has been willing to exit, and that makes a Romney victory more likely, not less.