The media has anointed Rick Santorum as the newest frontrunner in the GOP race after he clinched three victories last Tuesday night in Minnesota, Colorado, and Missouri. That bump translated into a steep rise in the national polls, with Santorum trumping former favorite Mitt Romney in four of the last five by as much as 15 percent. RealClearPolitics now gives Santorum a 1.6 percent edge in their polling average.
It seems, just perhaps, that the anti-Romney faction has finally settled on its chosen candidate. The conservative base—think the rural voters clinging to their guns and churches, not the Wall Street financiers who'd prefer to pay zero capital gains taxes—has little interest in voting for flip-flopping Willard. So where does Santorum go from here?
The candidate's social conservative bent paired with an emphasis on blue-collar manufacturing make him the ideal candidate for the Midwest Rust Belt states where most of his victories have come so far. De-industrialization has devastated this region of the country, leaving a swath of voters wary of a Boston multi-millionaire and receptive to Santorum's pitch to revive industry by reducing the corporate tax rate to zero for manufacturing companies. The preponderance of small, religious communities in the region also favors Santorum.
The next two states to vote are Arizona and Michigan on February 28. Santorum has largely ceded the first to Romney, but his strategists have said he will make a strong pitch to win Michigan, Romney's home turf. One of Romney's surrogates has already said it would be a "huge embarrassment" if the former Massachusetts governor fails to win the state where he grew up and won by large margins in 2008. But a Public Policy Polling survey over the weekend put Santorum up by 15 points there. In the longer term, Santorum is banking on success in Ohio on Super Tuesday, calculating that a victory in the state—no Republican has become president without winning Ohio—would be enough to squash Gingrich and propel him further ahead of Romney.
Still, it's hard to determine if Santorum's rise will be a temporary blip, or if he can capitalize on the recent gains and have the staying power that eluded Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Newt Gingrich. Santorum has yet to be subjected to the full onslaught of negativity from the Romney campaign, whose super PAC has already prepared an ad to air in Michigan, Arizona, and Ohio. Even if voters dislike candidates who run negative ads, they've still proven effective in tarnishing their opponents this election cycle.
What's more, Santorum has only found success in smaller contests where staunch conservatives make up the majority of the voting bloc and grassroots campaigning can overcome the money gap between himself and Romney. That won't help Santorum as the race expands on Super Tuesday. Beyond his hopes for Ohio, Santorum is primed for a truly dreadful performance when 10 states vote on March 6. He failed to qualify for the Virginia ballot and the Massachusetts primary is an assured loss. Only three states employ the low-turnout, caucus process for selecting a nominee that has favored Santorum's grassroots base to date, and those represent a small fraction of the total delegates at stake.
The South would seem to be an area equally receptive to Santorum's social conservatism. But Santorum has underwhelmed in the first few southern states. He finished in third behind Gingrich and Romney in both South Carolina and Florida, only managing to gather 13 percent of the vote in the latter. Gingrich is in free fall mode, so perhaps his southern support will bottom out over the next three weeks—or in Santorum's dream world, Gingrich will heed the advice of the National Review and drop out immediately. Otherwise, the former speaker could see a slight resurgence as the South re-enters the picture; Santorum would have to defeat Gingrich in Georgia, Oklahoma, or Tennessee to remain in the race.
The most likely scenario: Santorum does well in Michigan, but comes crashing back to earth on Super Tuesday. At that point, Santorum would likely leave the race in short order if he sees no viable path to gaining the nomination and his money begins to dry up. Unlike Gingrich, who is willing to burn RNC headquarters to the ground and salt the earth if he is not shown proper respect in his personal vendetta against Romney, Santorum is a party man who sees a future for himself in Republican politics.
Santorum still looks like a long shot to get the nomination, but his continued presence could be a headache for Romney. Romney had expected to shift into general election mode around this time; instead, he'll still trying to establish himself as "severely conservative." With birth control and gay marriage back in the headlines, Santorum will set the bar for religious zealotry. Even if he can't defeat Romney, Santorum's devotion to the cause will force the Massachusetts governor to preen to social conservatives more than he would in a general election.
Given the deep bench of young Republican stars, Romney is unlikely to select Santorum as a running mate, but Santorum will have pressured Romney to address the social issues close to his heart. He'd probably be granted a plum, prime-time address at the Republican convention in Tampa to once again push culture wars to the forefront of the campaign. And perhaps he'd set his eye on 2016. Republicans are known for selecting the next candidate in line. After standing as the last Republican in Romney's path, Santorum would be the only one who could fit the bill.
Read Part 1: Ron Paul here.