Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum scored two impressive victories over Mitt Romney last night; a pounding of the GOP frontrunner in Minnesota and a surprising and solid victory over him in Colorado.
Santorum still faces a steep climb to the nomination. The Republican Establishment–or what has been the Republican Establishment–has overwhelmingly lined up behind Romney, who has widely been viewed as possessing the best chance from among the Republican field of beating President Obama in November. Romney also has big bucks; hundreds of millions of his own as well as a huge advantage over Santorum in individual and corporate donations.
But Santroum’s victories last night remind the American political public what this blog and many others have been noting for months–namely, that Republicans don’t really like Mitt Romney. Even in the contests he has won, voter participation and enthusiasm for him has been weak. Romney’s biggest win so far, a strong plurality in Florida, included only 51% his supporters expressing satisfaction with the Republican candidates.
There are many valid reasons for these Republicans to dislike Romney. But perhaps the most salient reason for them is that they don’t truly believe that he is a “conservative.” At least not a conservative in the way that term has been redefined in recent years. That’s why–for all of his significant weaknesses as a candidate–Rick Santorum was wise to begin his victory speech last night with the words, “Conservatism is alive and well…”
In just less than three weeks, Republican primary voters in the critically-important, potential swing states of Michigan and Arizona will go to the polls. During the time leading to these primaries, Santorum and his message that conservatism is vital and resides more in him than any other candidate will be put to the test. If he is successful, Santorum will strike a shocking blow in this unpredictable nominating season. He will also serve as evidence that what had been considered mainstream, modern, American conservatism now has a very different meaning than it ever has.