***Just How Legitimate an Anyone-But-Mitt is Rick Santorum?

The big news today is Rick Santorum’s sudden surge in the polls.

There are many reasons to take these results with several grains of salt, such as the massive organizational and funding discrepancies between the Romney and Santorum campaigns. But this is still going to lead to some intrigue, because it will force Romney and Friends to actually treat Santorum as a legitimate threat.

It’s easy to forget, given how much Santorum has become a punchline in liberal circles, that a lot of conservative voters probably don’t really know who the guy is (I spent a few minutes trying to track down a name-recognition survey about Santorum but had no luck — if any readers find one, shoot me an email by clicking on my name and I’ll append this post).

The usual trajectory in these situations is approximately this: 1) Previously underdog candidate is carried toward the front of the pack by a sudden wave of support. 2) His or her opponents lock on and unleash a barrage of negative ads and oppo research. 3) Candidate withers as a result.

It will be interesting to see to what extent this pattern holds here. For one thing, the actual frontrunner, Mitt Romney, is a guy that no one in the GOP, possibly not even Romney himself, is excited about. There’s also the fact that a lot of the old Santorum stuff about to get churned up, the most infamous of it his comparison of homosexuality to bestiality, is unlikely to bother conservative voters all that much. His views on social issues could make him a semi-poisonous general-election candidate, but in a primary — particularly a primary currently starring Romney? Less so.

I don’t think he’ll get anywhere near the nomination. But this is going to be interesting to watch.

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.