Donald Lambro
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WASHINGTON - Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum is the GOP's latest presidential "flavor of the month," propelled by his party's large bloc of evangelical and socially conservative voters.

A rogues gallery of dubious candidates have received this temporary designation over the course of the GOP's increasingly bitter fight for the nomination: Rep. Michelle Bachmann, Gov. Rick Perry, and Herman Cain, who were all at the front of the pack at one time, only to fall behind and drop out of the race.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich has had several debate-driven comebacks, with a big win in South Carolina. More recently, since his poor showing in Florida and Nevada, he has lost support. He is now in second place in the national party rankings at 21 percent to front- runner Mitt Romney, and his campaign is deeply in debt.

Enter Santorum who trounced Romney in this week's contests in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, though it remains to be seen whether this was a political fluke in states where voter turnout was relatively light and there were no delegates at stake in any of them.

Throughout his Senate career, Santorum was the clear, undisputed leader of the GOP's social conservative wing that has become a stronger force in the party's delegate-selection process. And he has fervently championed their issues throughout his shoe-string campaign -- i.e. the role of religious faith in the life of the nation, the government's war on right to life abortion issues and their fierce opposition to same-sex-marriage.

However, his larger political profile has remained cloudy, even though he's set forth a full blown campaign agenda of tax cut reforms and economic revival -- issues Romney has made the central focus of his candidacy.

While Santorum has had an influential track record in the Senate over two elections, 1994 and 2000, he doesn't mention he was overwhelmingly defeated for a third term, losing by a whopping 18 points, 59 percent to 41 percent, to Democrat Robert P. Casey, largely on economic issues.

For better or worse, those are the overriding issues that will likely decide the outcome of the 2012 general election and whether President Obama can win a second term.

Santorum championed many issues in the Senate, but he was not especially known for his skill or leadership on the economic issues that cost him his Senate seat in 2006.

While he carved out a conservative record in his Senate years, he was one of the big spenders there when it came to stuffing appropriation bills with hundreds of "ear mark," special interest spending provisions for his state. All told, according to most published reports, he steered hundreds of millions of tax dollars into his state for a wide variety of questionable public works projects.

Taxpayers for Common Sense, a deficit-cutting public advocacy group, "estimated Mr. Santorum helped secure more than $1 billion in earmarks during his Senate career," the New York Times reported last month.

The influential Club for Growth, a tax cutting advocacy organization, said, "Santorum was a prolific supporter of earmarks, having requested billions of dollars for pork projects in Pennsylvania while he was in Congress."

This has already become a major line of attack by the Romney campaign. It sent out a blistering e-mail Thursday attacking Santorum as a longtime Washington insider and big spender who contributed to the growth in government over his years in the Senate when spending skyrocketed from $1.5 trillion in 1995 to $2.7 trillion by 2007.

Borrowing a line from Will Rogers, the e-mail charged that Santorum "never met an earmark he didn't like."

Clearly, Romney has suffered significant setbacks from Santorum's impressive victories in the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses and Missouri's "beauty contest" primary. Yet it remains to be seen how this translates in the delegate-selection process to come in those states.

Romney spent little time and even less money in the three contests after his Nevada victory. He came in a poor second in Colorado, failing to match his performance there in 2008 when he captured about 60 percent of the vote. He finished an embarrassing third in both Minnesota and Missouri.

But this is only the beginning of what could be a long slog through the GOP primaries that have turned into the political equivalent of trench warfare. The history of recent Republican presidential primaries is that the eventual winner often loses a number of contests, only to rack up enough delegates to clinch the nomination in the end.

Arizona Sen. John McCain lost 19 primaries in 2008, but went on to become the party's nominee.

Nor is Romney's relatively low 35 percent party support among his other rivals unusual at this point in a deeply divided primary race. At this same point in 1980, Ronald Reagan was polling only 34 percent support in his party, but went on to win his party's nod and the presidency.

Romney is expected to do well on Feb. 28 in the winner take all primary in Arizona, where there is a large Mormon population, and in his home state primary in Michigan.

Many factors will enter into the remaining months of the GOP's nomination race, but in the end, electability may be the most critical factor of them all.

According to recent Gallup polls, Romney is clearly the strongest candidate against President Obama right now. They are tied 48 percent to 48 percent among registered voters in the 12 battleground swing states that will likely decide the election. They are also tied nationally.

Romney's last three rivals, Gingrich, Santorum and Rep. Ron Paul are all in the low 40s against the president in the pivotal swing states. If the election were held today, Santorum, the GOP's latest flavor, would lose to Obama by 43 percent to 51 percent.

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Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.