I saw Santorum on Fox News Sunday yesterday.  Awful.  He spent 80% of the interview playing defense  (and not very effectively either) on issues he shouldn’t want to talk about.  He is just not able to parry the question and move on to his own message.  It is possible to that that.  I saw Gingrich do that when he was asked about Rush Limbaugh.  Gingrich very skillfully and decisively framed his answer in terms of the more important issues of jobs, energy prices, etc.  Yesterday also saw Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn endorse Romney.  Last I checked, Santorum had a huge lead on Romney in Oklahoma, and the socially and economically conservative Coburn would ideologically be closer to Santorum than Romney.  Why is Coburn endorsing the not-so-long ago pro-choice Massachusetts governor who wrote in support of a federal-level health insurance mandate as recently as 2009?  I can’t get in Coburn’s head, but a lot of people who should be ideologically closer to Santorum (Bob McDonnell, Jim Talent, Jeff Flake) are supporting Romney.  Let’s look at Santorum’s strengths and weaknesses and see how we got here.  First his strengths:

1.  He has some core principles.  You don’t have to wonder if he is really pro-life or that he is for something like the Ryan Medicare reforms.  That puts him up on Romney and Gingrich.   

2.  He did his homework to the best of his ability. He knew more about Obamacare than a) it had a health insurance mandate and b) he didn’t like health insurance mandates.  He knew that diverting funds from the Social Security payroll tax to fund new private accounts would add hundreds of billions of dollars to the government’s already unsustainable liabilities.  He knew that Romneycare had been followed by increases in health insurance premiums.  This knowledge put him well ahead of Cain, Bachmann and Perry.

 3.  Santorum was persistent and put in the work.  Unlike Pawlenty, Santorum didn’t fold up his tent after doing badly in one silly season straw poll.  He ground it out and met people day after day and put himself in a position to make a lucky break.

4.  Santorum didn’t treat Republican primary voters like suckers.  His message had more substance than Romney’s hollow “I love America of the free market against the European socialism of Obama” speeches.  Unlike Gingrich, Santorum didn’t promise moon colonies and free guaranteed private Social Security accounts, and no Medicare changes to anyone who didn’t want them.  Santorum told some hard truths.  We are going to be spending less on Medicare.  The only question is how those cuts are structured.  Our deficits are so large that we can’t have private accounts in Social Security without either bankrupting the country or offsetting tax increases or even larger spending cuts than anyone (other than Ron Paul) has proposed.  Good for Santorum

So why is Santorum doing so badly right now (other than the huge negative buys by Romney and Romney allies)?  I think there are multiple, deeply interrelated reasons.  So the weaknesses:

1.  Santorum isn’t very articulate and he isn’t very rhetorically disciplined.  He keeps getting into pointless fights that he can’t get out of.  You don’t see Obama extensively explaining his position that partial birth abortion should be legal in circumstances where the mother’s life is not in danger.  Part of it is that neither the Republicans nor the media press him on it very much.  But part of it is that Obama will just say something about trusting women’s judgment and MOVE THE CONVERSATION.  Obama’s knows not to try to win the argument about why it should be legal to deliver most of a baby, and destroy the baby’s brain in circumstances where the mother’s life is not in danger.  He makes his point with the smallest fuss possible and then moves on to an issue that the public is thinking about more (the economy, gas prices, taxes, whatever.)  Santorum can’t do that.  He has to give the long answer about Same Sex Marriage even when a restatement of his position would be enough and most of the audience wants to hear about his tax plan. 

2.  Santorum couldn’t get much support from the institutional Republican Party or affiliated donor networks.  As of 2010, Santorum has been in DC for over twenty years.  He knew the players and they knew him.  He has gotten almost no endorsements from Republican members of Congress or Republican governors.  Santorum’s fundraising was brutal.  Even Gingrich during his “right-wing social engineering” collapse was able to out raise Santorum.  Gingrich has also gotten significantly more endorsements.  The people in DC who saw Santorum work opted not to support him.  Some of the conservatives who worked with Santorum chose to go with Romney.  It is like they are trying to tell us something about Santorum’s discipline and talent level.

3.  This weak fundraising stunted Santorum’s campaign in multiple ways.  Some are obvious.  Santorum wasn’t able to get on the ballot in Virginia or file a full slate of delegates in Ohio.  But Santorum’s weak fundraising hurt Santorum in less obvious ways.  He has done some hiring lately, but Santorum’s staff was remarkably bare bones.  One effect of this staff weakness was the lack of good opposition research.  It was the media that brought to light Romney’s suggestion of a federal insurance mandate using tax penalties to get people to buy insurance.  That would have been good for Santorum to know in the last debate.  

The lack of staffing shows up in other ways too.  Santorum’s speeches don’t seem prepared.  He knows what he believes but he seems to compose his speeches as he goes.  If you listen, you get Santorum’s idea, but you rarely hear a sentence or two that is powerful and clarifying.  He sometimes seems to be having a death match with his own tongue as he struggles to find the next word.  Crafting concise and powerful rhetoric is hard.  Even Reagan, who was far more talented than Santorum, worked hard at finding just the right formulation for his thoughts.  Santorum could have used a speechwriter or two.

He could also have used a debate preparation team.  Santorum had an interesting debate challenge.  He didn’t have a national issues learning curve like Perry or Bachmann.  He didn’t have to worry about what he should pretend to believe like Romney or Gingrich.  Knowing his stuff and knowing what he believed was a surprisingly rare combination of virtues in this contest.  What Santorum lacked was focus and preparation.  How did Romney and his team work out a strategy for pinning the passage of Obamacare on Santorum?  How long did Romney and his team practice his debate lines and prepare for Santorum’s answers?  Romney and his team worked at anticipating what would come up.  They work at crafting Romney’s responses and they practice those responses so that even Romney comes off as natural (sorta) and sincere (sorta) when he is in his debate comfort zone.  Santorum is just out there with whatever he remembers from being in the Senate and whatever he Googled, and a general idea of what he wants to talk about if he has a chance.  Santorum didn’t have a plan to transition a question about earmarks to Romney’s support for a mandate or Romney’s past support for cap-and-trade.  Santorum just kept going on and on about the history of earmarks and blah, blah, blah.  Maybe if Santorum had Gingrich’s rhetorical ability, Santorum wouldn’t need the debate preparation.  But Santorum, whatever his virtues, is far below Gingrich in the talent department. 

So when Romney’s team turned his full attention to Santorum, this is what you got: You had Romney blaming Santorum for Obamacare because Santorum endorsed Arlen Specter in 2004, and Specter switched parties in 2009 and Specter was the 60th vote that was needed for passing Obamcare.  Hardly any sane person thinks that Santorum was really the reason for Obamacare passing, but the exchange still mattered.  Romney looked like a competent, clever, hard working and serious candidate. Santorum looked like an underprepared, disorganized, easily flustered loser.

Underneath the dishonesty and opportunism of Romney’s attack, there is some truth there.

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