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Numbers Suggest Santorum Could Be Romney's Worst Nightmare

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

In a campaign defined by Republican reluctance to embrace Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum has emerged as the latest not-Romney candidate to surge ahead. While it's impossible to predict what will happen in this volatile election season, the data suggests that Santorum might be more of a challenge for Romney than earlier flavors of the month.

The latest Rasmussen Reports poll of the GOP race shows that Rick Santorum leads Mitt Romney by 12 points, 39 percent to 27 percent. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul are far behind. In and of itself, that's nothing new. The man from Massachusetts has at times trailed Michele Bachmann, Donald Trump, Chris Christie, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich in the polls.

What is new are the numbers from a head-to-head matchup with no other candidates in the race. Santorum leads Romney 55 percent to 34 percent. None of the earlier Romney alternatives could manage better than a toss-up in such a contest.

Those numbers show that Santorum picks up 16 points when other candidates drop out. Romney adds just 7 to his column. Santorum makes huge gains among conservative voters when others drop out of the race. Among non-conservatives, Santorum and Romney gain roughly equal amounts. For the first time, the numbers show that if one of Romney's challengers drops out, the other challenger will overwhelmingly benefit. Gingrich supporters, by a three-to-one margin, would vote for Santorum over Romney if that was the final choice.

Both Romney and Santorum are well-liked by Republican Primary voters, but Santorum has a slight advantage on this pointm as well. Seventy-five percent offer a favorable opinion of Santorum, while 66 percent say the same of Romney.

There is a huge passion gap favoring Santorum, though. Forty percent of Republican primary voters have a very favorable opinion of Santorum. Just 18 percent are that enthusiastic about Romney.

The one thing keeping Romney afloat is that he is still perceived as the strongest general election candidate. For some Republicans, that's enough. But to survive the Santorum challenge, Romney needs to give primary voters something more, something positive. GOP voters want a reason to vote for him beyond the fact that he has the most money and the best organization.

Team Romney needs to acknowledge that Republican voters are not only strongly opposed to President Obama's agenda but that they don't think much of Washington Republicans, either. They want a president who would shake up the good old boys network in Washington rather than join it. To date, Romney's attitude signals that he'd be more comfortable leading the club than challenging it.

Santorum has a very different challenge. First, he must survive the onslaught of ads coming from the Romney campaign. Then, he must convince Republican voters that he can win the general election in November. Electability is still the most important factor for Republican voters. If Santorum can neutralize the electability argument, he could become Romney's worst nightmare.

The next primary competitions are slated for Feb. 28 in Arizona and Michigan. If Romney wins both states, the race will probably be over. However, if Santorum can pull off a victory that day, he will be far more than the latest flavor of the month.

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