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The Santorum Conundrum

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Mitt Romney has withstood every challenge to date, remaining the only constant in the Republican nomination race. There are legitimate reasons for his consistency. Romney is photogenic, has proven business skills, can manage a budget, and heads a campaign flush with cash. The sum total of these assets is the demise of everyone, thus far, who has challenged him.

However, conservatives haven’t warmed to Romney, as last week’s caucuses confirm. So Rick Santorum becomes the latest, and perhaps strongest, “conservative alternative” the “anyone but Romney” camp has long sought.

Santorum is solidly conservative on many issues. He’s pro-life and dedicated to the time-tested family unit. Santorum opposed TARP, Obama’s “stimulus” slush fund, and both the auto and Freddie/Fannie bailouts. He’s a proven proponent of entitlement reform, recognizing the entitlement system as a budgetary and economic albatross around the nation’s neck. He also voted to end direct farm subsidies, and still he won the Iowa Caucuses.

Yet Santorum’s silver lining contains a dark cloud. In fact, his résumé includes glaring inconsistencies. His 2005 vote to subsidize milk production contradicts his efforts to end farm subsidies. While Santorum was fiscally disciplined during the 90s, he fell in line with the “compassionate conservatism” of the Bush era, supporting Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, and a highway bill rich in earmarks, including the infamous Bridge to Nowhere. Santorum opposed ethanol subsidies prior to 9/11, changed his mind due to security concerns afterwards, and then voted to end them altogether just a few years later.

Santorum didn’t contest Maine, so those results are irrelevant to his momentum. However, before elevating him to savior status we might also consider that he lost his Senate reelection bid by a wide margin. He seems equally comfortable on either side of an issue, depending on whether he’s supporting his party or preaching against the opposition. Let’s also consider that he received no delegates for his Missouri victory and awarded delegates in Colorado aren’t necessarily bound to him. Furthermore, Newt Gingrich — the other “anti-Romney” — bypassed those caucuses. Where might Santorum have finished had the anti-Romney voters been split between he and Newt, especially in Colorado?

Also, Romney’s money and political organization remain formidable. The Mitt Machine was quite thorough in highlighting Gingrich’s flaws and we witnessed an associated tumble in Newt’s standing. Romney’s guns weren’t then trained on Santorum. But, with last week’s results, Rick becomes an intrusion that warrants a full salvo from Romney’s battlewagon. Santorum should expect to take fire from here forward, and not only from Romney. Gingrich isn’t the type to fade gracefully into the background, either.

Maybe Rick Santorum is the conservative’s best option. He does present solid credentials. However, no candidate is perfect, including Santorum. He bears the dead weight of personal and policy contradictions and inconsistencies. The question is: Can Santorum survive the Romney camp’s predictable assault long enough to become the legitimate “anti-Mitt?”

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