Rickypalooza

The whole hep political world is abuzz about the Santorum Sweep last night. So here’s my brief take:

There are obviously two ways to look at Ricky’s Big Night. On the one hand, he ran the table in three reasonably important general-election states after being reduced to an afterthought by most party leaders and the media. His wins in Missouri and Minnesota were by crushing margins. Newt barely showed a pulse (finishing a poor third in CO and a poor fourth in MN), and Mitt showed once against that conservatives aren’t quite ready to “settle” for him. In county after county in MN and CO, Mitt’s performance fell vastly short of his vote in 2008, when he was the flip-flopping “movement conservative” candidate instead of the flip-flopping RINO he’s reputed to be today.

On the other hand, Santorum did not win a single delegate last night (MO was a completely symbolic affair unconnected to the caucus next month in which delegates are selected, which is why nobody but Ricky bothered to campaign there; CO and MN, like Iowa, have multi-stage delegate selection systems in which last night’s results were technically just a “straw poll”). Only about 65,000 votes were cast in CO; 50,000 in Minnesota; and in the one primary, 250,000 in MO. That’s compared to over 1.6 million in Florida.

Whichever of these approaches you take, it is clear Santorum is about to experience a pounding from opinion-leaders unlike anything he’s ever experienced, and that’s saying a lot considering his Google problem. Party elites may not consider him quite as much of a sure general-election loser as Newt, but his relentlessly extremist positions on cultural issues, among which his reputation as an international symbol of anti-gay bigotry is just the tip of the iceberg, are considered a serious problem. Meanwhile, as his weakness in SC and FL showed, Ricky’s strength among right-wing voters last night has not, so far, been exhibited in the South, where Tea Party folk and born-agains hate unions and “welfare” as much as they love Jesus, and Santorum is viewed as something of a Big Government Conservative.

So he has issues, and now he will bear the brunt of the Romney Money Machine and the well-demonstrated willingness of the Gingrich campaign to say and do anything to tear down opponents. The calendar creates a lull before expensive primaries in MI and AZ, two states where Romney has some built-in advantages (MI because it’s his native state, AZ because of its sizable LDS vote). Then comes Super Tuesday (March 6), with its combo platter of expensive primaries and the small caucuses where Ron Paul (who did not have a good showing last night) is concentrating. Everything negative you can say or even imagine about Rick Santorum will have been thoroughly aired between now and March 6. The relatively free ride he’s had as Newt and Mitt have gone after each other like wolverines is coming to an abrupt end, and it will be interesting to see how well he responds. It would certainly help him if his main Super-PAC donor, billionaire Foster Friess, starts writing huge checks.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.