Rick Santorum Evolves From Punch Line to Possibility

PHOTO: President Barack Obama delivers a statement, Feb. 10, 2012, in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington. Republican presidential candidate former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum speaks during a campaign stop, Dec. 29, 2011 in MuscaPlayAP Photo/Getty Images
WATCH Santorum Surging Ahead of Romney in Michigan

Three months ago, the idea of Rick Santorum's winning the Republican nomination seemed like a joke. Now, for the first time, it's a real possibility.

But if the key issue for the GOP nominee is "electability," which primary voters consistently say is their top concern, how would Santorum fare against President Obama in a general election?

For conservatives, Santorum's rise is comforting because it tells them that there's solid support for a candidate who isn't Mitt Romney. But there are two elections to be won: the primary, and the general election against Obama. And few political observers are willing to give Santorum the edge in the ultimate contest in November.

Polls across the country have consistently given Romney a better score at beating Obama than any other Republican candidate, statistics that the Romney campaign uses to trump up his electability.

"Santorum is less nonviable than I think a lot of liberals and even analysts assume, but he is also less competitive with Obama," said Bill Galston, a former adviser to Bill Clinton and the presidential campaigns of Al Gore and Walter Mondale.

Santorum's problems in a general election lie mostly with independents, the voters who usually determine who wins. Whereas Romney is seen as the more moderate Republican who could compete for independent votes, Santorum has staked positions far to the right of the mainstream, particularly on social issues such as gay marriage, contraception and, recently, women's serving in the military.

Most of Romney's past has been unearthed in the primary, from his time at the private-equity firm Bain Capital to his tenure as the governor of Massachusetts. Less time has been paid to Santorum's history, although that could change in the weeks leading up to two Feb. 28 primaries and the Super Tuesday votes a week later.

For example, Santorum, 53, has said that contraception is "not OK," and he has compared being gay with "man on child, man on dog." Such statements haven't been repeated by his Republican opponents because they don't necessarily turn off GOP primary voters, but they're much more likely to alienate independents in a general election.

Democrats are likely to see Santorum's hard-right views as a minefield were he to, miraculously, win the nomination. "He offers what the military calls a target-rich environment," Galston said.

Three months ago, Santorum barely registered with voters. The Gallup poll had him under 5 percent nationally until 2012. A series of polls this week have reinforced the image of Santorum as a real candidate and not the sideshow he once might have been.

In two weeks, during which he won three voting contests in one night, he has jumped from 17 percent in the Gallup poll to 31 percent. Romney has dipped to 33 percent.

Nationally, Santorum earned 30 percent of Republicans' support in a New York Times-CBS News poll, while Romney got less: 27 percent.

In key primary states, the evidence is strong, too. Romney's lead in Arizona, a state he is expected to win Feb. 28, has shrunk to 7 points in an American Research Group poll. In that survey, Romney gets 38 percent, and Santorum gets 31 percent.

And in the battleground state Ohio, which has its primary Super Tuesday, Santorum leads Romney 36 percent to 29 percent, according to a new Quinnipiac poll.

The news makes Democrats salivate with the possibility that Santorum could be the nominee or, at the very least, prolong the GOP nomination long enough to drag Romney further into the mud as he and the super PAC supporting him spend money to chip away at Santorum.

"If I were Axelrod; I think he started talking about Santorum. I wouldn't," Galston said. "I'd preserve radio silence and let a party bent on committing suicide go about its business."

David Winston, a GOP pollster who works as a senior strategist for Newt Gingrich's flagging campaign, said the idea of Santorum challenging Obama isn't far-fetched because the ailing economy presents an opportunity for any Republican to make a firm case.

"How does he present a plan that he believes will help the economy?" Winston said. "That's what the electorate is really going to be voting on."

At this point in the race, there is some evidence that Santorum wouldn't bomb in a race against Obama, although very little about him is publicly known, much less than what has been debated about Romney.

The Quinnipiac poll reported that if the general election happened now, Obama would beat Romney in Ohio 46 percent to 44 percent, and that he would beat Santorum 47 percent to 41 percent, a bigger gap but by no means monstrous.

Pippa Norris, a politics professor at Harvard's Kennedy School, predicted that if Santorum were to win the nomination, conservatives would "feel very happy for a short time," but that reality would settle in once his record and values are shown to the light.

"Romney, on the other hand," Norris said, "is perfectly placed."

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