Could Cash Cut Rick Santorum's Shaky Lead?

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks during a campaign rally at the El-Zaribah Shrine Auditorium Feb. 21, 2012, in Phoenix, Arizona.Eric Gay/AP Photo
Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks during a campaign rally at the El-Zaribah Shrine Auditorium Feb. 21, 2012, in Phoenix, Arizona.

As the Republican primary raged through January, so-called super PACs spent millions of dollars on negative ads and mail sent to voters to try to sway them. One candidate, though, was largely spared from the bloodbath: Rick Santorum.

That's changing, now that Santorum is seen as the "frontrunner" in the race heading into a key primary vote in Michigan and others in Arizona and Washington state.

The test for Santorum is whether he'll keep his cool under an onslaught of attack ads the like of which he hasn't yet seen in the campaign, or if he'll crumble under pressure and prove that his surge was just a fluke.

Financial documents filed with the Federal Election Commission this week show that the super PAC supporting Mitt Romney spent almost $14 million in January, and that the super PAC backing Newt Gingrich spent almost $10 million. Almost all of that money was spent attacking the other candidates: Romney's group funneled $12 million to anti-Gingrich ads, and Gingrich's spent $8 million attacking Romney.

The Gingrich super PAC didn't spend any money going after Santorum, and Romney's spent only $397,000, allowing Santorum to slip under the radar in the first month of the year and emerge in February as the surprise winner of a string of primary contests that have given him nominal first-place status in the race.

February's marquee contest in Michigan should be different. Already there have been reports that the billionaire casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson plans to give another $10 million to Gingrich's super PAC, which would almost match the $11 million he and his wife have already given the group. But instead of squarely buttressing Gingrich's campaign, the cash could help the former speaker continue to run competitively in Michigan while siphoning off conservative votes from Santorum, making room for Romney to slip in and claim the win.

That might be exactly what Adelson wants. Adelson is said to be supportive of Romney should Gingrich not win the nomination, and The Wall Street Journal reported that the Vegas magnate is prepared to use his wealth to take Santorum down a few pegs.

In his only interview since he started bankrolling Gingrich's campaign, Adelson recently told Forbes that he "might give $10 million or $100 million to Gingrich."

He also said that he likes Romney and Santorum and would support whoever wins the primary, except maybe Ron Paul.

But Adelson also said this: "I'm against very wealthy people attempting to or influencing elections. But as long as it's doable, I'm going to do it, because I know that guys like [George] Soros have been doing it for years, if not decades. And they stay below the radar by creating a network of corporations to funnel their money. I have my own philosophy, and I'm not ashamed of it. I gave the money because there is no other legal way to do it. I don't want to go through 10 different corporations to hide my name. I'm proud of what I do, and I'm not looking to escape recognition."

"What part of that makes sense?" asked Meredith McGehee, the policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, which tracks the impact of money on elections.

While $100 million from Adelson might not be able to make Gingrich the president or even the Republican nominee, it might be good to take just enough votes away from Santorum.

In Michigan, Santorum leads Romney by a few points in a number of polls; the ex-senator is ahead in the national Gallup poll by 10 points; and in Arizona, a state once considered a lock for Romney, Santorum trails by just four points in a new Time/CNN/ORC poll.

On Wednesday, an NBC/Marist poll put Santorum just two points behind Romney in Michigan but much further back in Arizona, while a Quinnipiac poll reported that Santorum leads Romney nationally by nine points.

Robert List, a former Nevada governor who was Adelson's legal counsel when he acquired the historic Sands Hotel, said the billionaire who bonded with Gingrich years ago over their commitment to Israel is motivated to donate by a candidate's "philosophy, policy, intellect and integrity."

"Sheldon is a brilliant guy who does not hesitate to make bold investments in what he believes in," List said in an email.

"What they're doing is proving the whole point that money can't guarantee victory, but it sure can have a hell of a lot to do with it," McGehee said.

There might be another quirky side effect to the introduction of super PACs in the presidential election: extending the primary process to more states than might have had a chance to vote otherwise.

Gingrich's super PAC is supported almost entirely by Adelson, and Santorum's exists pretty much because of Foster Friess, a rich investor who supports conservative causes. Without those two men funding the super PACs, Gingrich and Santorum might well have dropped out weeks ago when their campaigns ran out of money.

Instead, the primary has dragged through nearly two whole months and promises to continue through Super Tuesday in early March -- and possibly all the way to the convention.

"The sort of good side of the super PAC is that it's enabling these candidates whose financial support would sort of otherwise dry up -- it's enabling them to continue," said Michael Heaney, a politics professor at the University of Michigan who had predicted that his state's primary would be irrelevant. "And you could argue that that is good for democracy, because it keeps up the primary contest through most of the states."