About a week after his surprising victory in the South Carolina primary, Newt Gingrich did an interview with ABC News, most of which he devoted to complaints about the tactics Mitt Romney was using against him in Florida: "We have not been as effective in telling the truth as he has been in running ads… which have had to be pulled because they were so inaccurate." His most notable remark, however, was a thinly veiled hint that Rick Santorum, who at that time had failed to gain any momentum from his caucus win in Iowa, should drop out of the race for the GOP presidential nomination: "The conservatives clearly are rejecting Romney. He is nowhere near getting a majority.… The fact is, when you combine the Santorum vote and the Gingrich vote... the conservative combined would clearly beat Romney."
Santorum failed to heed the former Speaker's suggestion, of course, and it's unlikely that he regrets that decision. He has since won three more upset victories in Missouri, Colorado, and Minnesota. Santorum now ranks second in delegates and trounces Mitt Romney in the latest national survey conducted by Public Policy Polling (PPP): "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." PPP has thus anointed Santorum the "consensus conservative candidate." Meanwhile, Gingrich has floundered. He has not merely failed to add any fresh victories to his single South Carolina win, his showings in the most recent state contests correspond with the percentage he received in the PPP poll.
The survey also shows Santorum beating Gingrich by large margins among "very conservative" Republicans as well as Tea Partiers and Evangelicals. Even more ominously, PPP speculates as follows about the nature of the GOP race absent the former Speaker: "If Gingrich dropped out 58% of his supporters say they would move to Santorum, while 22% would go to Romney and 17% to Paul. Santorum gets to 50% in the Newt free field to 28% for Romney." And it gets worse. PPP released a survey yesterday showing Santorum pulling ahead in the upcoming Michigan primary, with Newt coming in dead last. "Rick Santorum's taken a large lead in Michigan's upcoming Republican primary. He's at 39% to 24% for Mitt Romney, 12% for Ron Paul, and 11% for Newt Gingrich."
All of which suggests that Newt should consider his own analysis of the conservative split as expressed to ABC. It's increasingly obvious that he isn't going to win the GOP nomination. Even if Gingrich somehow manages to rise from the dead yet again and emerge victorious in Tampa, his record is so messy that the President and his reelection team would certainly beat him like a dirty rug in the general election. Thus, if he cares about the country as much as he claims, and truly wants to prevent the man he calls a "Massachusetts liberal" from winning the GOP nomination, his most honorable course of action will be to fall on his own sword. Newt's voluntary departure from the nomination race, combined with an enthusiastic endorsement of Santorum, would give the latter a real shot at beating Romney.
Santorum is not a perfect candidate, of course. In fact, at least one of my own columns contains an unkind reference to the querulous tone that seemed to characterize his early debate performances. Mercifully, he has kept this unattractive feature of his personality under control of late, perhaps because he is no longer an "also ran" unable to get a word in edgewise while the "serious" candidates maunder semi-coherently in response to questions he could easily dispose of in a couple of succinct phrases. More importantly, however, Santorum carries very little of the baggage that weighs down Romney. He isn't burdened with anything like Romneycare. Thus, he can credibly advocate the repeal of its vicious offspring, Obamacare. Nor will he be required to explain countless flip-flops on the Second Amendment and abortion.
Santorum is, in fact, the only GOP contender left who constitutes a genuinely conservative alternative to a president whose statist vision of America's future will transform us into a European-style social democracy. Moreover, he brings another attribute to the table that none of his competitors can offer. Santorum's 2006 Senate defeat notwithstanding, he has won four out of five elections in a heavily unionized state where Democrats far outnumber Republicans. And, as Don Surber points out, it is a state that no Democrat presidential candidate can afford to lose: "President Obama can win without Florida.… But no Democrat has won the presidency without Pennsylvania since 1948." Obama isn't polling very well there at present. Santorum is probably the only Republican running who has a chance of winning Pennsylvania in November.
This potential advantage cannot be exploited, of course, unless Santorum wins the nomination. And Romney is not going to passively watch it slip through his fingers. Santorum will soon be hit with the kind of carpet-bombing that Gingrich complained about in January. But these attacks can be absorbed by a solid candidate who enjoys the support of Tea Partiers, Evangelicals and the rest of the GOP's conservatives. Santorum will have that support if Newt does the honorable thing. In fact, this could be a "twofer" for Gingrich. If he wants to revenge himself on Romney for perceived wrongs, it's hard to imagine a sweeter way of doing so than by depriving his antagonist of the nomination by throwing his support behind Santorum. Meanwhile, he will have saved his party from the electoral debacle would inevitably ensue if Romney is its nominee.
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