This was quite a week for the remaining Republican candidates. Rick Perry dropped out of the race and, somewhat surprisingly, threw his support immediately to Newt Gingrich. In the meantime, Newt’s ex-wife granted an interview with ABC and gave the media liberals some red meat about Newt’s unfaithfulness and his alleged desire for an “open” marriage. Mitt Romney came under some fire for not releasing his tax returns, and then, when some information came out about his having bank accounts in the Cayman Islands as well as paying “only” a 15 percent tax rate, the fire intensified. Ron Paul continued to sound like…..well, Ron Paul. That is, a candidate who has an intense following but too small of one to ever be a serious contender over the long haul.
All of these developments may have worked mainly to the advantage of former Senator Rick Santorum who, with Perry’s departure and Newt’s sometimes fickleness on certain issues, has claimed the mantle of the lone true conservative still in the race. If there is a candidate who exemplifies what Sean Hannity claims about the endless debates and their sharpening effect, Santorum more than the others is that man. In each of the last two debates, Santorum has displayed a mastery of the issues and an ability to zing the others that has, at the least, brought him into the discussion of “top-tier” candidates.
Of course, Santorum has some weaknesses just as the others do. Ironically enough, for a party whose establishment is so all-fired concerned about what moderates think, it was the influence of George W. Bush on Santorum’s votes in the Senate and his ill-fated support of liberal Pennsylvania colleague Arlen Specter that may have led to his defeat in his most recent Senate run. Santorum figuratively held his nose while voting for No Child Left Behind and the Medicare prescription drug program, two of Bush’s “reach-across-the-aisle” fiascos. He supported Specter for re-election against the conservative candidate Pat Toomey who, in another ironic twist, ended up in the U.S. Senate anyway. I’ll bet Santorum wishes he had a mulligan on that decision, even if that meant going against his president. Although undoubtedly several factors contributed to his defeat at the hands of Democrat Robert Casey Jr. (such as Casey’s father being a popular former governor and a pro-life Democrat to boot), there’s no doubt in my mind that the dilution of Santorum’s conservatism during this period was a major contributing factor. He was one of numerous victims of Bush’s wimpy version of conservatism that many voters could not distinguish from what they saw as “moderate” liberalism.
At least Santorum is humble enough to acknowledge, when challenged about his “big-government” tendencies, that he made some voting decisions as a Senator that he wishes he didn’t have to make. Understandable, given that he was supporting his party’s leader the president—but still hard to defend on the campaign trail. Especially given Bush’s massive unpopularity in the latter part of his presidency and the brownie points any Republican gained with the media and liberals in general (McCain comes to mind) by challenging Bush. Unfortunately, although not as glaring as Romney’s health care program in Massachusetts, Santorum’s support of Bush-era big-spending programs could be a millstone around his neck, especially as he gains more traction in the race. That is, it will be tough, albeit in a more subtle way than Romney on health care, for Santorum to claim his pure conservative bona-fides when these Bush-supporting votes are noted, as they assuredly will be.
My hope is that Gingrich and Santorum are in this thing for the long haul, and that the longer they stay, the more Romney will either lose his momentum or, if he wins, at least be dragged to the right, whether or not he wants to be.