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Romney v. Santorum: 1976 All Over Again

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Either Mitt Romney is the presumptive nominee by early February, or we have a replay of the 1976 GOP primaries on our hands.

Both Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum had great nights on Tuesday. Both can say an earnest thanks to Iowa caucus goers. Iowa battered everyone else, perhaps not beyond repair, but probably.

Both men are fine candidates. Bill Kristol provided a great case for Santorum on my show Wednesday and a million bucks flowed into Rick Santorum's campaign via the web the same day.

United States Senator John Thune also dropped in for a chat yesterday, and as the South Dakota conservative is backing Romney, he too was in a good mood. (Transcript here.)

As Santorum's biggest problems are money and his loss in 2006, so Romney's biggest problems are suspicions that he isn't really a conservative, and his alleged "ceiling" of 25%.

"Well, you know, it’s always frustrating, because I don’t know where that comes from," said Thune of the "he's not a conservative charge" against Romney. "I suppose that when you rep, when you come from the state of Massachusetts, people automatically make certain assumptions," he continued. "But if you look at his governing record, you look at his positions on the issues, he is a right of center conservative in the mold of many of us who are fiscal, economic, national security conservatives."

The vocal opposition to Romney comes mostly from this camp of folk who believe he really isn't a conservative and who either haven't read or who don't believe Romney's 2009 book, No Apologies (by far the former I suspect, though as he wrote it himself, it is journalistic malpractice to comment on Romney without having read his book.) A few anti-Mormon die-hards are out there, and Article VI Blog follows that story in a way that should be a model for the MSM, in the way MSM should and would follow anti-black or anti-Catholic bigotry directed at President Obama or Senator Santorum's campaign.

But mostly the opposition to Romney is rooted in his perceived "moderate" status.

There are two reasons for this perception and one solution.

The first reason is that Romney is very much in the tradition of midwestern moderate conservatives of which his father, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, former Michigan governor John Engler, and current Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and Ohio governor John Kasich sprang from. This is a quieter sort of conservatism, a Main Street, local Chamber of Commerce conservatism, but it is a real and deep tradition and its temperament is very different from coastal, call it insurgent conservatism where there is always an uphill battle underway against coastal elites, producing a necessarily much more confrontational style of movement conservative, like we saw in Ronald Reagan as governor and now in New Jersey's Chris Christie and Senator Marco Rubio now.

But they are all conservatives.

Romney also has to overcome the Arnold problem (no, not that kind of a problem) and in many respects winning a few tough primaries is the only way to do it because the real Arnold problem is that Arnold had a glass jaw and went down after one big union punch landed on his chin soon after his first election. Every Republican with any memory of the hopes for Arnold at the time of the Recall, of the Terminator's speech in New York at the convention in 2004, but he folded.

Romney, of course, never folded in Massachusetts, but his opponents have been saying in essence that he did with the Massachusetts health care plan. Romney has been replying that he won a tough fight with a much larger opponent on that bill and in many other cases. His base, as opposed to his "ceiling," believes this narrative. Thus their solid support.

Santorum will argue this week and beyond that the GOP needs a coastal insurgent conservative, someone like him who has battled the Big Blue machine many, many times and except for the 2006 wipeout which came in the worst of national conditions, he always won. Scars, yes, but no glass jaw, and a great ability with words.

Romney will reply that what we need is to win, and that he can, did in Iowa, and will do so again in Florida and many times down the road and especially in November. Electability is his current strongest suit, but he is a very able speaker and debater as well which will serve him well if he is the nominee, as will his vast executive experience as the sprawling, endlessly changing and challenging business of taking on Team Obama unfolds.

What we are in for, in other words, could be a replay of 1976's GOP contest between conservative midwesterner Gerald Ford and conservative Californian Ronald Reagan, an epic campaign, one that was good for both me.

I make this argument in my conversation with Kristol and time will tell if the analogy holds. My major point is that both men, as all fair minded parties now admit, were very good men and very solid conservatives. There was nothing "moderate" about Gerry Ford except his wonderful demeanor.

Folks worried about the elbows flying and bad blood boiling right now should find a veteran of that campaign and ask them. Things settle down. Gerald Ford would have won in 1976 except for his massive debate slip about Poland. That slip of course brought us four years of misery followed by Reagan and the end of the Soviet Union, so it takes some time to weigh these things.

It doesn't take much time at all, however, to applaud the Hawkeye State voters for setting up two very good men for a very good debate. Speaker Gingrich and Governor Perry might yet rally to replace Santorum as Romney's main opponent, but if they don't, the insurgents got a very good man in Rick Santorum to carry their banner.

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