During the week that ended Sunday, Newt Gingrich held eight campaign events and Mitt Romney held nine. Rick Santorum held 15 events last week, and that may ultimately explain why Santorum continues his otherwise inexplicable surge in the Republican presidential race: He is simply out-working his opponents.
Ever since Iowa, where he famously visited all 99 counties before surging to an upset win over Romney in the final week before the Jan. 3 caucuses, Santorum has consistently appeared at more public events than either of his chief GOP rivals. Excepting only the last weekend of January -- when he returned home to get his tax returns and stayed to visit with his ailing 3-year-old daughter -- Santorum has almost always held more events each day than either Gingrich or Romney. Some days, Santorum appears at more campaign events than the other two combined. Monday, Santorum did two events in Ohio and two in Michigan. Tuesday, he traveled to Arizona for two more events, and today he will speak at a Tea Party rally in Tucson before tonight's debate in Mesa (8 p.m. Eastern, CNN).
The national media, while spending the past week hopping from one Santorum-related "controversy" to another, have paid little attention to the former Pennsylvania senator's unsurpassed diligence as a candidate. If all you knew about the Santorum campaign was what you learned from the media, you might be excused for believing that he has surged to the top of the Republican presidential field because (a) he's a scary religious kook, and (b) so are GOP primary voters.
Day after day, ever since it became clear that Santorum is the last man standing between Romney and the Republican nomination, a drumbeat of hostile media coverage has followed Santorum everywhere. When he described President Obama's allegiance to radical environmentalism as a secular "theology," this was seized on as evidence that Santorum was questioning Obama's professed Christianity. After draining the last ounce of outrage from that controversy -- which they had, of course, created -- the media then evidently decided that the public should be alarmed because of something Santorum said at a Catholic university four years ago. His August 2008 remarks during a speech at Ave Maria University in Florida, to the effect that Satan was especially targeting the United States for destruction, were a banner headline all day Tuesday on the Drudge Report, and even so staunch a conservative as Rush Limbaugh said, "Santorum will have to deal with it. He'll have to answer it."
It should not be necessary to explain the recording and transcript of Santorum's Ave Maria speech did not make its way into the media by mere happenstance, but was in all likelihood unearthed by opposition researchers for some other campaign. The shadow of suspicion would naturally fall on Romney's well-funded operation, but one cannot rule out the possibility that Obama's own re-election campaign was responsible, because there is good reason to believe that Santorum's rise in the GOP field has alarmed Team Obama.
A recent Washington Post article reported that the Obama campaign, which has spent most of the past year operating on the assumption that Romney would be the Republican nominee, had re-assigned researchers to begin "digging into Santorum's background." In recent days, the president's Chicago-based campaign staff has "begun to consider the implications of a Santorum victory," the Post's Sandhya Somashekhar reported. "They view him as a weaker general election opponent, but one who has shown an ability to connect with the population that is most disillusioned with Obama: white, blue-collar voters."
One look at the Electoral College map should make clear why, despite their description of Santorum as the "weaker" Republican candidate, Team Obama may be especially worried about his potential strengths as an opponent in the fall campaign. The so-called Rust Belt states -- from Santorum's home state of Pennsylvania, across West Virginia and Ohio all the way west to Wisconsin, Minnesota -- are home to many millions of those "white, blue-collar voters" and Santorum has indeed shown an ability to connect with that "disillusioned" population. These are Americans who were notoriously described by Obama in April 2008: "They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
Despite their alleged "antipathy," many of those bitter gun-and-Bible clingers in the small towns and cities of America's heartland voted for Obama four years ago, but they haven't gotten much of the "Hope and Change" he promised them. Those voters have much in common with Santorum, who speaks frequently of his coal-miner grandfather, an Italian immigrant who came to America to escape Mussolini's fascist regime. Many of those blue-collar Rust Belt voters are Catholics like Santorum and, in recent decades, Catholics have been the crucial "swing" vote that decides elections. In 2008, polls showed Catholics favoring Obama over Republican John McCain by a 10-point margin. On the eve of the 2010 mid-term election, however, polls showed Catholics had shifted sharply, favoring Republicans by as much as 24 points -- and the GOP won its largest congressional landslide in more than half a century.
Should Santorum emerge from this long campaign as the Republican nominee and manage to rally blue-collar voters and Catholics in the Midwestern heartland to the GOP standard, Obama's re-election prospects would be quite dim indeed. And so while the hostile media continues trying to gin up new controversies around him, Santorum just keeps on doing what he has been doing every day for nearly a year: Campaigning everywhere he can, in the hope that hard-working voters will ultimately choose the Republican who is working harder than any other candidate to win their votes.