Santorum on the rise?!

    Remember those scenes in Terminator 2 where the cyborg gets blasted to bits, only to regenerate itself over and over? This week, it might be Rick Santorum’s turn to play the cyborg.Despite four consecutive defeats, including a 10 percent performance this weekend in the Nevada caucuses, the deposed Pennsylvania senator might actually revive himself with strong showings tomorrow night in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado. The polls indicate that grassroots conservatives in those states are wary of Mitt Romney (despite his successive wins in Nevada and Florida), unimpressed with Newt Gingrich (for reasons I need not explain), and therefore intrigued by Santorum’s conservative pitch.Missouri, in particular, is fertile turf because Newt is not even on the ballot. The primary is just a “beauty contest” – no delegates are awarded tomorrow night – but Santorum will at least get a one-on-one contest with Rommey, something he has wanted all along. Plus, Missouri’s Republican base is culturally conservative, strongly anti-abortion and heavily evangelical.

    Besides topping the field in Missouri polls, Santorum has been narrowly leading Romney in Minnesota and running second to Romney in Colorado (pro-Santorum evangelical leader James Dobson is based in Colorado). All told, the respected Public Policy Polling firm says that, within the next 48 hours, Santorum “may have supplanted Gingrich as the top alternative to Romney.”How can this be? Isn’t Santorum supposed to be running on fumes?Actually, he is on fumes – financially speaking. But he does have a message, and it’s strong enough to give him a niche in this rollicking marathon. He’s basically contending that Romney and Gingrich are inauthentic conservatives, while he is the real deal. As the tag line in his new TV ad says, “He doesn’t just talk a good conservative game. He lives it.”Santorum is hinging his candidacy on character. In his view, Romney is a phony who wavers on the issues most dear to conservatives; in Colorado this weekend, Santorum called Romney “a well-oiled weather vane” who would not provide a sufficient contrast with President Obama (particularly on health care, given the similar features of the Massachusetts and federal laws). As for Gingrich, Santorum views him as a phony on family values, someone who would fail to unite the conservative base this fall.Santorum doesn’t have to talk about Newt’s multiple wives; the new TV ad merely juxtaposes the tag line (“He doesn’t just talk a good conservative game. He lives it”) with footage of the large Santorum family. On Fox News yesterday, Chris Wallace aired that ad and asked Santorum, “Is that a veiled reference to Newt Gingrich’s personal problems?” Santorum should’ve replied by saying, “Duh, ya think?” but he said that anyway, in Sunday morning politesse:”Yes, I live it (conservatism) in both my professional and personal life. That is a message that I think is important, you know, in a presidential candidate….The issue of character is an important one. The issue of trustworthiness is an important one, and authenticity….All of those things are character issues when you’re electing a leader are certainly important issues to consider….I just want a candidate that we can go out there and rely upon to be authentically conservative, to stay disciplined, to stay focused on Barack Obama as the person that we should be highlighting in this race and not make the Republican candidate the central issue in the campaign.”Santorum’s prospects for a game-changing breakthrough, one that would propel him to the nomination, remain very slim. But in the short run, he’s having an impact – if only because his ongoing presence is both a help and a hindrance to Romney. He helps Romney because he continues to split the not-Romney vote with Gingrich. But he hurts Romney because he continually highlights about the front runner’s moderate track record; as evidenced in the debates, he’s the guy who best skewers Romney for requiring that all Massachusetts citizens buy health coverage. (Gingrich can’t do it, because he once supported a purchase mandate. Health reform happens to be Romney’s top achievement, but Santorum sows doubts among conservatives by framing it as an assault on Freedom.)Missouri looks to be Santorum’s most crucial test; as he insisted last Friday, “When we go head to head with Governor Romney, we can beat him.” Tomorrow night may be his last best chance to regenerate.——-It was a passing remark, but noteworthy nonetheless. On Fox News yesterday, Santorum said: “If you look at Florida and Nevada, the results were down as far as participation is concerned. I mean, this is not a good sign when the two candidates that everybody is talking about (are) not generating any energy in the Republican primary.”Ah yes, the issue of turnout. He got that right.Last Tuesday, Florida Republican primary turnout was down 14 percent from 2008. This weekend, Nevada caucus turnout was down 27 percent from 2008. Iowa turnout was up only a fraction over the ’08 tally, and New Hampshire turnout among registered Republicans was down 16 percent. Only one state, South Carolina, has posted a robust hike.So, again, the key question: If Republican voters are supposedly so ginned up about 2012, and the prospect of kicking out the socialist Kenyan, how come they’re not flocking en masse to pick a Republican candidate on primary day?——-My Sunday newspaper column dealt with the rise of Super PACs and the new era of Daddy Warbucks donors (thanks, Supreme Court!).——-I did another Live Chat today, with a lively Q & A.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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