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Santorum, the 'coulda, shoulda, woulda' candidate

 Rick Santorum's mix of fury and folksy is working for him, says Timothy Stanley.

Story highlights

  • Timothy Stanley says Santorum is tragic conservative steeped in potential -- and bad luck
  • He says Santorum popular, but GOP denied him momentum by GOP after Iowa results snafu
  • He says Santorum's Midwest victories still leave him chasing Romney, who's well positioned
  • Stanley: If GOP backed him, if Iowa results had been accurate, he might have had momentum

Rick Santorum is emerging as a tragic hero of American conservatism: so much potential, such bad luck. His victories Tuesday night demonstrate what might have happened if the Republican Right had coalesced around him for the past month instead of the hyperbolic Newt Gingrich. But a counting error in Iowa delayed his momentum, and it's only now that the Republicans are realizing just how good a candidate he can be.

Unlike Gingrich, Santorum is more than just an anti-Romney vote. People actually seem to like him, and it might have something to do with those nostalgic sweater vests that he wears. Combined with his old school moralism, he sometimes comes off like a sitcom dad of the "No long-haired hippie is gonna date my daughter!" variety. While Romney's victory speeches are polished tedium, Santorum's sound like they're being shouted angrily at a terrified prom date running for his life down the asphalt drive.

Beyond the great visuals, Santorum is also very good at articulating how conservatives feel about things. Mitt Romney's rhetoric is full of sunbeams and star-spangled banners; the coziness of his brand is epitomized by the fact that 2% of Americans think his first name is Mittens.

Timothy Stanley

In contrast, Santorum's voice quivers with a righteous anger that is more appropriate to this political season. Most conservatives don't see the economic issues framing this election as being purely about economics. They see a cultural dimension to Obamanomics that poses a challenge to their way of life -- and Santorum taps into that.

He's done a great job of exploiting the administration's attempt to require Catholic organizations to provide contraception coverage to their employees, ratcheting up the rhetoric and calling the president a latter-day Big Brother. His charge that Romney likewise mandated Catholic hospitals to provide emergency contraception to rape victims exploits Republican suspicions that Romneycare and Obamacare are interchangeable. It's notable that Santorum's breakthrough has come in the GOP Midwest heartland. He's made a case that Romney is a Republican In Name Only, and many people are buying it.

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The mix of fury and folksy is working wonders for Santorum this week, but can he take it all the way to the convention? Probably not. Tuesday's contests gave him no delegates and were won under special circumstances. Newt Gingrich wasn't even on the ballot in Missouri, and it helped that Gingrich and Romney put all their resources into South Carolina and Florida, which allowed Santorum to focus exclusively on Tuesday's caucuses and manufacture a little momentum on the sly.

Even with these wins under his belt, Santorum will struggle to catch Romney. The two big primaries left this month are Arizona and Michigan, states that heavily favor Mittens. Santorum is rising fast in national polls (up 5% in a few days, according to Reuters) but is still in fourth place. His bigger problem is that consensus rests with Gingrich being the heavyweight anti-Romney candidate. Santorum has to overcome a fear about splitting the conservative vote if he is to emerge as the right-winger du jour.

All this amounts to Santorum being the "coulda-shoulda-woulda" candidate of 2012. If only his victory in Iowa had been reported accurately, he might have had bigger momentum going in to New Hampshire and South Carolina. And if only conservatives had coalesced around him rather than Gingrich, he would be the front-runner. And if only Republicans voted on the basis of what they believe in rather than what they think is electable ...

The possibilities are fascinating but will probably be largely academic.

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