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I’ve been reluctant to write about the rise of Rick Santorum (or to use this week’s most popular, and annoying, bit of journalese: ‘the Santorum surge’) because I figured his momentum would have slackened by the time I hit ‘post’. Chatting with a few colleagues at Oxford’s Rothermere American Institute a few days after his handsome victories in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri – a supposed ‘game-changer’ – I made a tea break boast that the odds of a Rick Santorum nomination hovered around 100/1.

But to my surprise Santorum is holding strong. After watching the polling over the last few days, I’m searching the internet for a bookie daft enough to suggest something similar. Unfortunately no luck. Coral and William Hill have the odds at 7/2. That may still be a good bet; Santorum has a 13 percent chance according to the New York Times’ Nate Silver – and that was written on February 10.

It’s still a long shot. Politics in Spires’ Rasmus Nielsen points out that Santorum’s so-far barebones campaign operation will have trouble scaling up its ground game. It’s also unclear how much Foster Friess, his only Super Pac sugar daddy is willing to spend. If they persist, these structural weaknesses will hamper him heading in to Super Tuesday on March 6, where 10 states are in play. One of them, Virginia, will not even have his name on the ballot. Before that is Arizona with its sizable pro-Romney Mormon population and then Michigan where, surprisingly, he is leading Romney 42.5 to 32.7 percent according to Silver’s analysis. Even still, Ed Kilgore’s sharp piece in the New Republic underlines the reasons to be sceptical about Santorum’s chances in the long run.

In the end though, Mitt’s money may come to the rescue. Even if he doesn’t go heavily negative, Romney can use his heavy money advantage to saturate the airwaves in these two states; Santorum can’t possibly match that unless his top Super-PAC donor, Foster Friess, drops an unimaginable amount of money on him. And if Romney does stage a February 28 comeback, the road gets much rockier for Santorum. Gingrich is likely to make a final stand on Super Tuesday in Oklahoma, Tennessee, and certainly Georgia, which will make a conservative consolidation for Santorum difficult. Rick won’t win Mitt’s own Massachusetts and isn’t even on the ballot in Virginia. His best shot then would rest on a breakthrough in Ohio—but that’s only possible if the money is there.

We’ll see. The really interesting part, however, is not the Santorum vs. Romney story. It’s all about the state of the GOP – and ultimately Romney, who is still the likely nominee and has the best chances of beating Obama in November. A few weeks ago, after the South Carolina primary, I posted about the unusual favourability swings following what was for Romney a commanding lead coming out of New Hampshire (19 points). Since then – as it was early in the primary – voters seem to be peripatetic about whom to back, resulting in a revolving door of front-runners. As my post argued, this is highly unusual at this stage in the race.

What it means is that the three factions of the party – pro-business, anti-government and religious right voters – cannot, will not, rally around Romney until they absolutely have to. Romney’s repeated salvos against Gingrich worked well (and let’s be honest it wasn’t hard) but it seemed to push voters to another anyone-but-Romney candidate. The New Yorker’s David Remnick calls him a ‘vaporous shifting mirage’ and it really does look like he will do anything to win, as The Economist’s Roger McShane also suggests.

Broke and far too conservative he may be, but at least Santorum is principled. If Romney loses Michigan by a significant margin, in a state where his father was governor (and a popular one), it will be very embarrassing indeed. Romney’s latest trick is to portray Santorum as a union sympathiser, but that is blatantly untrue. Just ask unions in Pennsylvania, where he was a senator. These attacks elicit more eye-rolling than eye-popping. The protracted primary has made Romney look inept. Cheeky bets aside, I still think he will win eventually, starting to wrap it up on Super Tuesday. But the victory will be a hollow one, more to do with campaign organisation than broad appeal.

A Blake Ewing is a PhD candidate at Oxford and the graduate editor of Politics in Spires. You can follow him on Twitter @politicsinspire. 



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