GOP Death Watch

Santorum Uses GOP Debate to Snatch Defeat from Jaws of Victory

The one constant in the GOP presidential campaign this season–other than the Perseid shower of fringe candidates flaming out–has been the erratic performance of the perceived front runners during key debates. Newt Gingrich capitalized on his success in South Carolina by auditioning for an Ambien commercial at the crucial debate before the Florida primary. Rick Perry went from being the great conservative hope of to a cartoon figure with a decimal point far to the left in his IQ. And now Rick Santorum has proven once again that no one can top the GOP candidates when it comes to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

In Wednesday night’s debate in Mesa, Santorum felt the heat from his rivals and wilted. All of Santorum’s weakenesses–his tendency to drone on, his irritation when challenged, his amazing lack of charisma–were on display. Meantime, Mitt Romney, who seems ready to bounce out onto the stage in his varsity debating jacket, baited Santorum and portrayed him to the audience as a phony conservative. Of course, this is pretty rich coming from the man who once positioned himself to the left of Ted Kennedy. But the GOP base is so intent on purity that virtually everyone can be turned into an apostate, even someone as reliably far right as Santorum.

As for the debate itself, Santorum showed uncharacteristic restraint talking about social issues, if restraint can be characterized as not suggesting that mainline Protestants were going to hell and public schools should be abolished. Newt Gingrich, whose campaign success lasted about as long as a trending Twitter topic, was oddly upbeat, which he could afford to be since he wasn’t in the hot seat. The most interesting dynamic was the one between Ron Paul, the superannuated libertarian, and Romney. Both ganged up on Santorum during the debate, so much so that afterwards Santorum snapped to reporters, “You have to ask Congressman Paul and Governor Romney what they have going on together.” (Now that’s an image that we can live without.)

The polls were  already showing that Romney was climbing back up after the humiliation of his three losses to Santorum. Still, with less than a week to go before the high-profile votes in Michigan and Arizona, the question remains as to why Romney just can’t put the nomination away. He has more money than all the other candidates combined (although a lot less than earlier this year), the blessing of the Republican establishment and a record that, in comparison to his rivals, would not get him laughed off the lawn of the White House. Yet Romney is just about the most feckless candidate in modern times, making John Kerry look like Teddy Roosevelt. And the long, drawn out primary season only serves to diminish him further.

The dilemma facing GOP voters is this: they have to pick a candidate. To use Motor City analogies, Romney may convince voters that Santorum is the Edsel of candidates. But it’s pretty clear that many GOP voters think that Romney is at best a Gremlin. If you have to pick a car, you may pick the Gremlin, but that doesn’t mean you’d be happy about it. As long as GOP voters are unhappy, the primary season will continue to drag on.

Photo credit: Reuters/Joshua Lott