In a little over two weeks, from Monday January 16th through Tuesday the 31st , we've had four debates, two primaries, one State of the Union speech, and an earlier caucus result restated to produce a different winner. During that short span, the race for the Republican nomination has been turned upside down, not once but twice. Mitt Romney is once again the front runner, not only in delegates but also in one of the pollsters' favorite questions: electability.
Until South Carolina, Mitt Romney had led in electability by over 20 points in poll after poll. The underlying assumption was simple: Romney could be expected to appeal to a wider swath of the electorate because he was seen as moderate rather than a conservative. Conservatives would still support Romney, even if without enthusiasm, because he would be far more palatable to them than the leftist Obama, while Independents would support Romney because he would be seen as a centrist. Very few people notice an important anomaly: the number of likely voters thinking that Romney would win was substantially bigger than the number supporting him. The notion of Romney's inevitability was another hollow bubble, and along came Newt Gingrich to pop it.
The South Carolina exit polling showed Gingrich as more electable than Romney because the basic assumptions underlying the very concept of electability had changed. Instead of being based on a kind of political spectrum analysis -- that a centrist has wider appeal to Independents and Democrats than someone more to the right -- all of a sudden people began thinking about how the various candidates would do in a one-on-one debate with Barack Obama. By that measure, the feisty and creative Gingrich was seen as far more capable than the steady but unspectacular Romney. I was in South Carolina for both the Myrtle Beach and Charleston debates, and as Gingrich brought the audience to their feet again and again, all around me I heard people murmuring "I'd love to see him go up against Obama." Even though the Florida primary returned Mitt Romney to front runner in electability, electability itself has changed. It's no longer just who is best positioned on the political spectrum to capture the Independent vote. It's now also about who is the best toe-to-toe fighter against Obama. Mitt Romney's strong debate performance in the two Florida debates, coinciding with Newt Gingrich's inexplicably flaccid performance, gave him Romney credibility as a fighter.
Meanwhile, Rick Santorum soldiers on and Ron Paul continues to march to his own drummer. Ron Paul's strategy seems simple enough: amass as many delegates as he can and see if those votes hold the margin of victory at the Tampa convention.
The most interesting candidate to watch over the next few weeks may well be Senator Rick Santorum. He has done well in the debates, some pundits even picking him as the overall winner in the soporific Brian Williams NBC Tampa debate. He has a solid grasp of the full range of issues. He is not afraid of hard work. He impresses people when he meets them, and he knows how to build and work with grassroots volunteers and networks. He is hampered by not having enough money to compete in expensive media states, but I don't think he really has to. Burning a few million in one week on a second-rate media effort is not likely to transform him into a top-two contender. It would be better for him to save the money that has flowed to him in healthy amounts since Iowa and use it to give him the capability to keep going all the way to Tampa. He just needs to hang in and look credible. Then, if anything happens to damage the candidacy one of the two front-runners, Santorum will ready, willing and able to step up into one of those two top spots. The candidate more likely to stumble is Newt Gingrich, but this week's Romney gaffe over not being concerned about the very poor reminds us that, in the 24 hour news cycle of 2012, they're both vulnerable to being done in by their own words. And of course there's a headline-hungry media swarm just itching to make it happen.
Santorum can and should good-naturedly brush off talk that he's really running for Vice President. If neither of the front runners stumbles, then he is almost certain to be in the short-list consideration for Vice President in spite of his denials of interest.
In other words, for the next three months or so, if he plays his cards right, Rick Santorum can't lose! Romney and Gingrich can. I'll admit that this is an unusual perspective on this highly volatile race, but it just may play out. In the meantime, it certainly is getting interesting, isn't it?