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Being "Too Conservative" Not Santorum's Downfall--Not in This Republican Party!

This item is crossposted from The New Republic.

Rick Santorum's withdrawal from the Republican presidential race earlier this week marked the end of a long, strange trip for the former Pennsylvania senator, who made himself the political vehicle for Christian Right resistance to Mitt Romney. But the lesson of Santorum's inevitable defeat isn't that he was too socially extreme. Ironically, it was his record of loyal support for the compassionate conservative agenda of George W. Bush that did Santorum in, not his 1950s-era values. In the end, the final "true conservative alternative to Mitt Romney" just wasn't conservative enough to nail down his potential constituency.

How did this happen? Santorum's long march to victory in Iowa (reported on caucus night, of course, as either a narrow loss to Romney or a "tie") represented the classic tortoise strategy. Strapped for funds and largely ignored by the media, Santorum painstakingly visited all 99 Iowa counties and rarely campaigned elsewhere. And in a state where social-issues activism was immensely important to the GOP rank-and-file and conservative leaders, his Iowa calling card was his strong record of outspoken fidelity to the twin social conservative causes of outlawing abortion and resisting legalization of same-sex marriage (or in Iowa's case, overturning the 2009 court decision that legalized it). It was probably Santorum's late endorsement by FAMiLY Leader co-chairs Bob Vander Plaats and Chuck Hurley that signaled his emergence as the best bet for a Christian Right bid to stop Mitt Romney.

After Iowa, Santorum initially seemed to be going nowhere. He never had a chance in New Hampshire, and despite an effort by prominent national Christian Right leaders to unify their flocks behind him, he finished a poor third in South Carolina. But Team Mitt's efficient destruction of Gingrich in Florida and in Nevada, based mainly on saturation ads calling into question the conservative warhorse's ideological reliability, gave Santorum another opening, particularly when Romney, having depleted his treasury and probably thinking he had already won, made a weak effort in the three states voting on February 7--Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri--all won by Santorum.

The second Santorum comeback set the stage for the rest of the primary calendar. There was a clear pattern: Romney regularly won a majority of delegates, while Santorum won popular votes in states with a sufficient white evangelical voting percentage. In the really crucial contests, in Ohio and Mitt's native Michigan, Romney and his super PAC heavily outspent his rival, relentlessly pounding Santorum for heresies against conservative orthodoxy during his Senate career.

Romney's success in exploiting Santorum's reputation for ideological laxity was widely ignored by many media observers, fixated as they were by Rick's more inflammatory social-issues statements, such as his criticism of John F. Kennedy's famous separation-of-church-and-state speech in 1960. On primary night in Michigan, many wondered if Santorum's failure to carry the state's Catholic vote was attributable to the JFK gaffe, failing to realize that the Opus Dei candidate had been losing the Catholic vote everywhere (he did finally carry it in a blowout win in Louisiana). Far more important was Romney's plurality over Santorum among the 61 percent of primary voters calling themselves conservatives. In Ohio, a far closer primary, Romney ran just six points behind Santorum among self-identified conservatives (66 percent of the Ohio primary electorate), and managed to convince 17 percent of voters that Rick was "not conservative enough," a figure that rose to 23 percent in the March Wisconsin primary that finished off the challenger.

In other words, even though Santorum did consistently well among "very conservative" voters, outside his white evangelical base he never consolidated sufficient conservative support to topple Romney. The reason: He was the only 2012 candidate who was serving in Congress in the first term of George W. Bush, and thus voted for No Child Left Behind and the Medicare Prescription Drug benefit, and did not notably dissent from Bush's comprehensive immigration reform initiative--all elements of Bush's "compassionate conservative" agenda that were especially appealing to that era's Christian conservatives, with whom Santorum was already closely identified. Santorum also voted regularly for earmarks, which had not yet become an ideological abomination to conservatives, and loyally followed Bush's endorsement of his Pennsylvania Republican colleague Arlen Specter. All these highly conventional positions came back to undo Santorum in 2012, a year in which conservative activists were virtually united in believing the big spending and even "liberalism" of their one-time hero George W. Bush had caused the landslide Republican defeats of 2006 and 2008.

There were other factors, of course, that helped prevent Santorum from pulling off what would have been an astonishing nomination victory. For one thing, unlike Mitt and Newt, he never had a super PAC donor base willing to provide virtually unlimited funds. (His one big sugar-daddy, Foster Friess, pretty much disappeared from sight and curtailed his largesse after his infamous "aspirin" gaffe.) And he could not get Gingrich out of the race, which probably cost him Ohio. But anyone thinking his problem was that he was just too conservative for the GOP is wrong--it turns out that yesterday's true conservatives have become today's RINOs.