Even as you read this, Rick Santorum's presidential campaign is going all-out to win the Wisconsin Republican primary. It's important to make that point up front, because if you permit yourself to be hypnotized by media coverage of the campaign, you will helplessly succumb to the belief that the fight for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination is all over but the shouting. There are many people who want to convince Republican voters in Wisconsin and elsewhere that Mitt Romney is the "inevitable" nominee, and not all of them are in the paid employment of the Romney campaign or his super-PAC.
Between the official campaign and its allied "Restore Our Future" super-PAC, pro-Romney forces have unloaded more than $3 million in advertising in Wisconsin, but what they've spent attacking Santorum is dwarfed in value by the network airtime devoted to promoting the message of Romney's inevitability. It is remarkable to observe how this appeal to bandwagon psychology has actually intensified since Santorum won the March 24 Louisiana primary by a whopping 22 points. Despite the overwhelming size of Santorum's victory -- he got 49 percent of the vote to Romney's 27 percent in Louisiana -- it was immediately dismissed as an irrelevant fluke, and the TV reporters and commentators quickly returned to talking about Romney's advantage in the delegate count and the front-runner's lead in the Wisconsin polls.
Despite everything that has happened in the campaign so far, despite last week's endorsements from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Rep. Marco Rubio, the fact remains that Romney has received barely 40 percent of the votes cast in Republican primaries and caucuses to date. And while the Real Clear Politics average of Wisconsin polls shows Romney leading by seven-and-a-half points, the results in Tuesday's primary may be much closer than that. Even a Rasmussen Reports poll taken Thursday, showing Romney ahead by 10 points in Wisconsin was actually good news for Santorum, since a March 21 Rasmussen poll had shown Romney up by 13. Furthermore, Santorum has a history of out-performing the polls, going all the way back to Iowa, where he won the Jan. 3 caucuses without ever having led a single poll in the Hawkeye State. The same was true three weeks ago in Mississippi, and last week in Louisiana, Santorum out-performed the RCP poll average by more than 9 points. This puts the recent Rasmussen poll in Wisconsin in an interesting light. Three days before Louisiana voted, Rasmussen had Santorum at 43 and Romney at 31 -- a 12-point margin that was exactly 10 points off the actual result. If Rasmussen is that far off in Wisconsin, it's a dead heat.
Santorum has kept up a rigorous campaign schedule in Wisconsin with four events Saturday, five events Sunday and five more events scheduled today. Volunteers across the country are calling Wisconsin voters as part of the Santorum campaign's phone-from-home program and, in an e-mail to donors sent Sunday, campaign manager Mike Biundo pointed to a new poll showing Santorum tied with Romney in North Carolina. Pollster Tom Jensen noted, "More and more conservatives are unifying around Santorum as the alternative to Romney." The most obvious reason for that is last week's implosion of the Newt Gingrich campaign. After losing Alabama and Tennessee March 13, Newt's weak third-place finish in Louisiana marked the effective end of his presidential bid.
In fact, as Ralph Z. Hallow of the Washington Times reported, Gingrich actually met with Romney in New Orleans the morning of the Louisiana primary, although Newt denied having made any deals with the former Massachusetts governor. Financial woes forced Gingrich to lay off much of his campaign staff last week and, although March fundraising reports are not due at the Federal Election Commission for another two weeks, it is expected the former House Speaker's campaign will report substantial unpaid debts. That may lead Newt to strike a deal to endorse Romney in exchange for help in paying off campaign bills, much as former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty did after his early exit from the GOP field in August. The possibility that Gingrich might support Romney is also indicated by favorable remarks about Mitt made by Newt's super-PAC backer, Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who last week admitted that Gingrich is "at the end of his line."
Of course, a Gingrich-Romney alliance would be deeply ironic, given how Newt spent months insisting that Mitt -- a "Massachusetts moderate," as Gingrich often said -- would be unsuitable as the Republican nominee against Barack Obama. When Gingrich was atop the national polls, he more than once suggested that Santorum should drop out and support him, because stopping Romney was such an urgent necessity for conservatives. Newt doesn't seem to feel that necessity is so urgent now that Santorum is the last man standing against Romney. Yet the head of Gingrich's super-PAC -- to which Adelson's family donated more than $16 million -- still sees a gloomy prospect if Romney should win the GOP nomination. Longtime Gingrich aide Rick Tyler last week told Politico "if Mitt Romney is the nominee we will lose in the fall," and said with Romney as the nominee, Republican chances of winning back the U.S. Senate "are dramatically diminished." However, according to the New York Times, "Party elders are discussing ways to help characterize Mr. Romney as the presumptive nominee… well before he reaches the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination."
This push for an early end to the primary season brings us back to Rick Santorum and Wisconsin and the media's relentless drumbeat about Romney's "inevitability." In an interview yesterday on Fox News, Chris Wallace began by asking Santorum, "Senator, do you feel pressure now to get -- or added pressure to get out of the race and give Mitt Romney a clear shot at Barack Obama?" Santorum responded with a sports analogy, referring to the epic comeback Kansas made Saturday against Ohio State to earn a spot in the NCAA basketball title game. "Look, I mean, this race is not even at half time," Santorum told Wallace. "We haven't even selected half the delegates yet. Governor Romney is not halfway to the magic number and, you know, we look at the calendar ahead, and we feel very, very good about where we are going." Despite that reality, Santorum said, "every question I get is, 'When are you getting out?' I mean, the whole narrative has been in Romney's favor from the beginning of this race and he still isn't even close to closing the deal."
Win or lose in Wisconsin, Santorum said, he will fight on. After Tuesday's vote, when Maryland and the District of Columbia also hold primaries, there will be a three-week breathing spell before the next round of primaries on April 24. If Santorum needs inspiration for the campaign ahead, he could look to Green Bay Packers legendary defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, who endorsed him Sunday and said, "Football taught me a lot. One of the game's greatest lessons is that we play to win, and we play until it is over." And as another Green Bay football legend said, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going."