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Santorum surge is telling for Romney

Stress on business skills not inspiring GOP ranks

VERNON BRYANT/THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS

A day after winning contests in three states to resurrect his campaign, GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum (above) greeted supporters in McKinney, Texas, yesterday while rival Mitt Romney spoke at a campaign rally in Atlanta.

Rick Santorum’s unexpected three-state sweep Tuesday is sending a clear message in the political world: Many Republican voters remain dissatisfied with Mitt Romney’s business-minded, PowerPoint appeal.

In turning to Santorum, voters in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado revived an alternative who, while lacking Romney’s money, organization, and establishment support, offers a homespun conservative sensibility, unbending Christian conservative convictions, and a message acknowledging the struggles of blue-collar workers.

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“I don’t think this was as much an endorsement of Rick Santorum as it was another wakeup call for Governor Romney that he needs to be more specific about why he wants to be president, beyond that he’s a successful businessman,’’ said Richard Wadhams, a former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, who caucused for Romney.

He and other Republicans said they expect Romney will now respond to Santorum’s revival as he has to surges by Newt Gingrich: by launching a fearsome barrage of attacks.

Yesterday, Romney’s campaign began the assault, accusing Santorum of being a Washington insider and supporter of pork-barrel spending. Romney’s well-financed super PAC may amplify those arguments on the airwaves.

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Republicans were bracing for the attacks with some trepidation. Many are eager to end the intraparty fighting and begin directing the party’s energies toward ousting President Obama.

Some polling data also suggest that the harsher tone Romney adopted in Florida as he fended off Gingrich may have tarnished his standing in a general election contest with Obama.

“There’s always danger if you go too far,’’ Wadhams said. “You’ve got to make sure the attacks are credible and reach a standard of fairness. And it’s always a fine line.’’

Romney was understandably eager to begin focusing on Obama after he dispatched Gingrich in Florida. At the time, it seemed Santorum’s candidacy was all but moribund and Romney’s path to the nomination was clear. But in racing toward the general election, Romney may have lost sight of the unease he continues to stir among some Tea Party adherents, evangelical voters, and conservatives, who hold sway in the primaries and caucuses, some Republican leaders said.

“His message is almost a general-election message but the nature of the race is such that, while you’re doing that, you have to lock up your base,’’ said David A. Keene, who is president of the National Rifle Association and was chairman of the American Conservative Union. “He really hasn’t gotten the enthusiastic support of the Republican base. He’s making progress, but he hasn’t gotten there.’’

Keene said it is unfair, but “the book on Romney is that he’s just a technocrat and he doesn’t really connect.’’ In addition, Romney’s past support for abortion rights, gun control legislation, and gay rights has never sat well with grass-roots conservatives.

Santorum’s success was all the more stunning because Romney won Colorado and Minnesota in 2008 and was thought once again to have a formidable operation in Colorado, an important swing state in the general election.

Santorum showed that “Romney’s support is still fairly shallow,’’ said Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist who was John McCain’s communications director during his 2000 presidential bid.

“He is still the front-runner, but his flaws are a lot more apparent after Tuesday night, and that raises the stakes for him over the next few primaries going forward,’’ Schnur said. “He needs to find a way to win a state without a lot of money or a lot of Mormons.’’

Republican leaders expressed doubts about Santorum’s ability to challenge Romney in the weeks ahead, mostly because they say he lacks the money to compete on the airwaves in Arizona and Michigan and on Super Tuesday.

But they said it is possible that Santorum could become a durable competitor, particularly if Gingrich continues to fade from the political conversation.

“Santorum is for real,’’ Wadhams said. “People like Santorum, and his sheer tenacity has established himself as a credible candidate.’’

Keene called Santorum’s surge unlikely to last but added, “It’s not impossible. This year has demonstrated that traditional campaigns are out the window.’’

Daron Shaw, a University of Texas political scientist who worked on President Bush’s campaign in 2000, said he does not view the results on Tuesday as an indictment of Romney’s conservative credentials, but more as a search by voters for a more exciting, compelling candidate.

“They’re looking around, but eventually he’s going to have enough money and organization to wear these people out, and voters will fall in line,’’ Shaw said. Still, “At some point, you wonder if the sense that Romney is inevitable gets undercut because he can’t put these guys away.’’

Gingrich, who had hoped to become Romney’s main competitor after his victory in South Carolina, now faces a tough slog to Super Tuesday, when he is hoping to mount a comeback in Southern states and Ohio.

“I don’t know that he’s going to go anywhere,’’ Keene said. “He’s done severe damage to himself. His message is unclear. You don’t know where someone is coming from who wants to colonize the moon and make it a state.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.
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