(Centennial Fellow) Nice guys don't always finish last. Sometimes they win three states in a single day.
Rick Santorum's improbable hat trick - sweeping Republican presidential contests in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado - provided yet another surprise in a wildly unpredictable nominating process. It also ensures that the primary season will last longer, that we will learn more about candidates' strengths and weaknesses, and that voters in more states will have a say in selecting Barack Obama's opponent.
As much as we may grow tired of the campaign antics and the infighting, a longer nominating trail isn't necessarily a bad thing. It didn't seem to hamper Obama after his lengthy slugfest with Hillary Clinton four years ago.
Pundits gave Santorum a fighting chance to beat Romney in Missouri without Gingrich on the ballot. But wins in Minnesota and Colorado were particularly noteworthy because Romney had decisively won both states in 2008. This time, Romney slipped from first to third place in Minnesota, and in Colorado, where he garnered 60% in 2008, finished second with 35%.
Despite his best efforts to persuade Republicans that he is conservative, "electable" and inevitable, Romney is unable to spark rank-and-file enthusiasm. The intellectual case for Romney, as presented by National Review, is reassuring but not inspiring.
Romney exudes competency and tries to say all the right things, but it's so obvious that he's trying too hard - that it doesn't come naturally.
As was the case with his "I don't care about the very poor" gaffe (words that should never pass through a candidate's lips in any context), he over-corrected by advocating that the minimum wage be indexed for inflation - a progressive liberal's dream.
Worse still, as Marc Thiessen explained in the Washington Post, Romney seemed unaware that the conservative response to poverty isn't a government safety net but a growing economy that produces good jobs to make people self-sufficient.
Contrast Gingrich, who can turn a phrase and inspire an audience and who packs intellectual depth to back it up. But Newt was much more likable as a second-tier candidate who played the father-figure in the early debates, reminding others to save their sharpest arrows for Obama's destructive policies. That's Good Newt.
Once Gingrich surged toward the front, we saw Bad Newt: self-important, overly-defensive, sometimes-unprincipled. He attacked Romney's business credentials from the anti-capitalist left, as if he had forgotten that economic growth usually means shedding older inefficient jobs in favor of new more productive ones.
Little Newt also emerged: the petulant politician who wouldn't extend to Romney the courtesy of a congratulatory phone call and whose astronomical "unfavorables" make reaching swing voters a daunting task.
Enter Santorum. Nobody, except perhaps Ron Paul, seems as genuine. It's that sincerity that helps conservatives forgive his few political transgressions and instead focus on his strengths:
- Because he never supported mandatory individual health insurance, he contrasts Obama better than either Romney or Gingrich.
- On tax cuts, his record is flawless.
- He's been a courageous leader in reforming entitlements, including welfare and farm subsidies.
- He clearly understands that America is a beacon of freedom and that we have real enemies who will strike if America appears weak.
- He's consistently supported parental choice in education, measures to curb abusive lawsuits, and protections for the unborn.
Some social moderates profess alarm that his faith informs his philosophy. Yet, that's further evidence of Santorum's sincerity. Faith isn't something he does on weekends; it's so important that he lives his life accordingly. To do otherwise would be hypocrisy. It's hard to understand why even those who disagree with his philosophy wouldn't respect his integrity.
Americans cheer the underdog, and Santorum's tenacious campaign engenders admiration. Now that he's a true contender, his task is to demonstrate that he represents the best chance to send Obama packing.