Guy Benson

Rick Santorum's moment in the sun doesn't appear to be a flash in the pan.  Not only has he vaulted ahead of or pulled even with Mitt Romney among national Republicans, he's now handily beating Romney in Michigan:
 

Rick Santorum's taken a large lead in Michigan's upcoming Republican primary. He's at 39% to 24% for Mitt Romney, 12% for Ron Paul, and 11% for Newt Gingrich. Santorum's rise is attributable to two major factors: his own personal popularity (a stellar 67/23 favorability) and GOP voters increasingly souring on Gingrich.  Santorum's becoming something closer and closer to a consensus conservative candidate as Gingrich bleeds support. Santorum's winning an outright majority of the Tea Party vote with 53% to 22% for Romney and 10% for Gingrich. He comes close to one with Evangelicals as well at 48% to 20% for Romney and 12% for Gingrich. And he cracks the 50% line with voters identifying as 'very conservative' at 51% to 20% for Romney and 10% for Gingrich. Santorum's benefiting from the open nature of Michigan's primary as well. He's only up by 12 points with actual Republican voters, but he has a 40-21 advantage with the Democrats and independents planning to vote that pushes his overall lead up to 15 points.


Bear in mind that Michigan should be exceptionally friendly turf for Romney, who was born in Detroit, whose father governed the Granite State, and who captured it by nine points in 2008.  What to make of Santorum's large lead among crossover indies and Democrats?  Is he resonating with blue collar workers, or are Dems -- who still view Romney as the bigger threat -- just eager to engage in their own version of Operation: Chaos?  Another new state poll shows Santorum ahead, but by a slimmer margin:
 

According to an American Research Group survey released Monday, 33% of likely Michigan GOP primary voters say they are backing Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, with 27% supporting Romney, the former Massachusetts governor. Twenty-one percent are backing former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, 12% are supporting Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and 6% are undecided. Santorum's advantage is technically within the poll's sampling error.


The former Massachusetts governor is fresh off a win in the Maine caucuses, as well as a favorable showing at CPAC, but these polls indicate that his campaign is still reeling from Santorum's unexpected trifecta last Tuesday.  The notion of Romney coasting to easy victories in Michigan and Arizona -- a reasonable proposition just a few days ago -- is now off the table.  Romney's going to have to campaign hard, and fashion a resonant anti-Santorum message, to win.  To aid these efforts, a pro-Romney Super PAC is dropping nearly half-a-million dollars on Michigan television ads.  Jim Geraghty sees a pivotal contest on the horizon:
 

Beating Romney in Michigan… would be a game-changer. Mitt Romney won four years ago by a wide margin when his campaign needed it most. Romney began his career there; his father, George Romney, was a two-term governor and successful auto executive there. (Of course, this factor is easily overstated; roughly 65 percent of Michiganders were not alive when Romney was last governor, in 1969. What’s more, Michigan’s population was estimated at 10,002,486 in 2008 and 9,876,187 in 2011, meaning that while the Michigan exodus has slowed in recent years, some of Romney’s backers from four years ago may not be around this cycle. The PPP survey notes that only 26 percent of primary voters think of Romney as a Michigander (interestingly, 33 percent of Romney backers don’t consider him to be one).


Meanwhile, Geragthy's parent publication, National Review, is calling on Newt Gingrich to exit the race:
 

Gingrich’s verbal and intellectual talents should make him a resource for any future Republican president. But it would be a grave mistake for the party to make someone with such poor judgment and persistent unpopularity its presidential nominee. It is not clear whether Gingrich remains in the race because he still believes he could become president next year or because he wants to avenge his wounded pride: an ambiguity that suggests the problem with him as a leader. When he led Santorum in the polls, he urged the Pennsylvanian to leave the race. On his own arguments the proper course for him now is to endorse Santorum and exit.

Santorum has been conducting himself rather impressively in his moments of triumph and avoiding characteristic temptations. He is doing his best to keep the press from dismissing him as merely a “social-issues candidate.” His recent remark that losing his Senate seat in 2006 taught him the importance of humility suggests an appealing self-awareness. And he has rightly identified the declining stability of middle-class families as a threat to the American experiment, even if his proposed solutions are poorly designed. But sensible policies, important as they are, are not the immediate challenge for his candidacy. Proving he can run a national campaign is.


The NR editors' argument applying Newt's own standards to the candidate is especially potent.  For weeks, Gingrich has been caterwauling about other conservatives clearing the field  for one Not Romney (namely, himself) to emerge and take the fight to the "Massachusetts Moderate."  It seems clearer than ever that conservative voters would prefer that person be Rick Santorum.  If Gingrich is as committed to foiling Romney as he claims to be, he might consider heeding his own advice, especially after taking a look at the polls linked above.  Granted, the 2012 GOP rollercoaster could take a few more gravity-defying turns before all is said and done, which is a reasonable argument for Newt to stick around -- but by staying in, he provides Romney at least a little bit of extra breathing room.  Even if he's inclined to hang around and hope for the best, donors may ultimately make the decision for him.


UPDATE - Here is a very sharp piece by ABC News' Amy Walter, explaining why Romney can't just go nuclear on Santorum like he did on Gingrich and other previous rivals.  As my analysis above indicates, I strongly endorse Walter's conclusion:
 

The Romney camp has done a great job discrediting other candidates, but they haven’t done nearly as good a job in defining their own candidate...The “nuke Newt” strategy may have worked in the short term, but recent polling shows just how problematic a purely negative campaign has been for Romney, especially among those independent voters Romney will need in November. According to a Pew poll released Monday, Romney has lost 8 points among independents since November....So what can Romney do? To be sure, the Romney campaign has to start “defining” Santorum. And, they’ll certainly get some help with that from the pro-Romney SuperPAC which spent heavily on ads attacking Gingrich. But, at some point, Romney also has to make a positive case for himself. He may never be able to convince some of the conservative elements in the party that he is “one of them,” but he does need to let them know that he has a vision for his campaign – and his presidency.


To this end, I'd suggest that Romney's CPAC speech is a decent template to work from.


Guy Benson

Guy Benson is Townhall.com's Senior Political Editor. Follow him on Twitter @guypbenson.

Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography