On Feb. 6, it all seemed so clear. Mitt Romney had won landslides in Florida and Nevada and looked set to soon lock up the Republican presidential nomination to take on Barack Obama in November.
But if a week is a long time in U.S. politics, two weeks is an age. The meteoric rise of Christian conservative Rick Santorum, a strong opponent of gay marriage and abortion, has turned the race on its head.
Victories on Feb. 7 in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado have catapulted Santorum from a distant third to first − a Gallup poll now gives the former Pennsylvania senator an eight percentage point lead over Romney nationally.
Should he pull off a win on Feb. 28 in Romney’s home state of Michigan, all bets will be off and the Republican establishment will be left facing the specter of a bitter fight all the way to its Aug. 27-30 convention.
There is no disguising the fact that Santorum’s views on subjects like homosexuality and abortion are out of step with many Americans and some are predicting there will be panic in the Republican Party should he win Michigan.
At the heart of the matter is the fact that his brand of highly moralistic social conservatism, which plays well in the Republican primaries, is seen as sharply at odds with the centrist message needed to win a general election.
Romney carries baggage from his governorship of liberal Massachusetts, including well-documented flip-flops on gay marriage and abortion, and has demonstrated a dogged inability to connect with core Republican voters.
It is now anyone’s guess whether his campaign’s superiority in terms of wealth and organization will be enough to carry him over the line.
In a sign of growing desperation, a prominent Republican senator told ABC News recently that if Romney loses Michigan, the party should try to entice a new candidate into the race.
“We’d get killed,” the unnamed senator replied when asked how Romney would then fare against Obama. “He’d be too damaged, if he can’t even win in Michigan, where his family is from, where he grew up.”
What about Santorum?
“He’d lose 35 states,” the senator said, predicting the same fate for former House speaker Newt Gingrich.
If no one reaches the magic number of 1,144 delegates in the state-by-state voting battle, it allows for what is called a brokered convention, when backroom deals are needed to push a certain candidate over the top.
A new candidate could theoretically enter the later contests and win enough delegates to present themselves at the convention as the party’s savior.
Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s chief strategist, dismissed the idea as “about as remote as life on Pluto” on Fox News Sunday, accusing pundits of suffering from “premature electionitis” so early on in the contest.
But Joe Trippi, former campaign manager to one-time Democratic hopeful Howard Dean, disagreed, saying that if Romney loses Michigan, “the train wreck keeps happening” and someone new will likely jump in.
Names being bandied about are former Florida governor Jeb Bush, House budget committee chairman Paul Ryan, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, and even former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
“All of these people have refused already and it has only become harder since that time,” The Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel cautioned on Fox News Sunday.
Desperate to stop the rot, Romney has retooled his Michigan campaign with a barrage of attacks on Santorum and is planning a big economic speech on February 24 at Ford Field, home to the Detroit Lions American football team.
Even if he wins Michigan and does well the same night in Arizona, another supposed Romney stronghold, Santorum faces an uphill battle against his opponent’s financial and organizational muscle.
But he has a multi-millionaire backer in the shape of controversial Christian businessman Foster Friess, and he possesses something that money can’t buy and Romney desperately lacks: bonafide conservative credentials.
The most likely scenario, especially if Gingrich continues to win some conservative backing and libertarian Ron Paul shores up his support base, is a long battle that could go all the way to the convention.
The White House, buoyed by improving economic data, is licking its lips at this prospect as Obama holds himself up above the fray as the only adult in the room fighting for middle class Americans.