Today, Nate Silver makes the point that Rick Santorum's strengths in the Electoral College map mean that there is less of an "electability" gap between him and Mitt Romney than Republicans might otherwise suspect.
What's clear is this: If Romney wins the nomination, the election will focus on economic issues -- and the Obama team will characterize him as an out-of-touch elitist plutocrat. If Santorum wins the nomination, the election will focus on social issues, with Santorum being painted as an anti-woman extremist with hard-core and outdated social views.
So part of making a decision involves Republicans having to decide on what grounds they want to take their stand, and where they have the best chance of winning. Are we ready to re-litigate social issues including women in combat
and contraception? What's worth pointing out is that -- for better or worse -- a lot of these social issues are wedges, among Republicans (both Bob McDonnell and Newt Gingrich have taken Santorum to task over the women in combat comments; there is a deep divide within even the conservative movement over the use of birth control). It's also a fact that Romney doesn't have the gender gap among women that Santorum does -- which would only increase after the Chicago gang got done with him. Can Republicans win an election fought over social issues, where a sizable gender gap already exists?
On the other hand, in Santorum's favor, he seems to connect better with blue collar and working class men -- voters who would make a big difference in several key states. And if the economy improves, does Romney have any other way to make the case that Obama needs to go? Can he connect enough to persuade voters that it's worth giving him a chance -- and can Romney gin up enough enthusiasm among the grassroots? Is he able (figuratively, only figuratively) to go for the jugular? Will he be proactive enough in offering the American people a real choice, so as to have a mandate if he wins?
The importance of the 2012 election can't be overestimated: We've got a dangerous and unsustainable level of government spending; ObamaCare is due to come into effect; Iran will, if not stopped, get nukes. There is an unprecedented level of executive overreach, in everything from the religion-stomping HHS regulations to recess appointments. This is an election to get right, if ever there was one.
Everybody knows Ronald Reagan is not running in this primary. Both Santorum and Romney would make fine presidents, who would do many of the same things. Both are smart men, and good ones. Which has the better chance of winning -- or, if he loses (God forbid), will do the least amount of damage to the down-ballot candidates?