Imagine if Axelrod and Co. had to ditch the playbook. The case for Rick Santorum — and yes, at this juncture, that phrase still feels weird — is that he is a conviction conservative with immigrant, middle-class roots who empathizes with battered places Republicans normally don’t see. If you don’t yet buy it, watch his might-as-well-be-a-victory-speech in Iowa: It was simply the best Republican rhetoric in the last decade.

The former senator powerfully articulated the case that too much entitlement weakens individual resolve; that the working and middle classes can be as endangered by unrestrained corporations as they are by big government; and that revitalizing shattered communities is a conservative enterprise too. He smartly acknowledged that neither party has exactly been preoccupied with the middle class, or the deteriorating relationship between work and reward. If it lacked the poetry and the elegant lilt of Obama’s A game, there was a clarity and directness to it that post-Reagan Republicans have struggled to find.

Santorum may or may not be the right messenger, but I suspect his message last night is the only one capable of beating Obama.