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Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and the conservative imagination, Part One

Last week, with victories in five primaries and Newt Gingrich’s departure from the race, Mitt Romney clinched the Republican presidential nomination. This means that the Republican standard bearer will be, arguably, the second least consistently conservative of the eight candidates who regularly participated in the presidential debates last year (the others were Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman, and Michele Bachmann). How did this happen?

For my colleagues John and Steve, no deep explanation is required. The Republican Party typically nominates a center-right candidate who was next-in-line after the preceding primary process. This year, Romney is that candidate. In addition, he’s an attractive and well-financed guy. Indeed, Steve told us early on to expect Romney to prevail.

In my view, however, more of an explanation is called for. For one thing, Romney is not your typical “next-in-line” candidate. Usually, that candidate can boast of years of service fighting the good fight for the Party (e.g., Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Dole). Even John McCain had fought many battles for the Party, while occasionally thumbing his nose at it.

These candidates weren’t nominated just because they had run decently well in the previous contested cycle. They were also nominated, I would argue, because of their service to conservative causes and in conservative struggles. Mitt Romney has performed little such service.

Moreover, 2012 is not, I would have thought, a business-as-usual year. 2010 clearly wasn’t. And though Tea Party influence on Republican races may not be what it was two years ago, neither has it disappeared. On the contrary, it remains substantial enough to be shaking things up in Indiana and perhaps in Utah. Why wouldn’t it shake things up in various Republican primaries and caucuses?

Finally, there is Romneycare. No prior Republican nominee in my memory has ever been on the wrong side of the signature center-right issue of the season, as Romney was on the individual mandate. McCain came close with immigration reform. But he backed off a little on this issue during the primary season. Romney stood firmly behind his decision to impose the mandate in Massachusetts.

How then did Romney become the nominee-to-be? Mainly, I believe, he was lucky. His biggest piece of luck consisted of the unwillingness of so many potentially strong Republicans to enter the race. The list of such Republicans is long – Sarah Palin, Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, Jim DeMint, and others.

Two seemingly formidable candidates did challenge Romney. But Tim Pawlenty, after being savaged by Michele Bachmann, lacked the will to stay in the fight. And Rick Perry, seemingly much more formidable than Pawlenty, was woefully unready for prime time when he finally entered the fray.

Even so, there remained one strongly conservative candidate who might have beaten Romney. That candidate was Rick Santorum. We know Santorum had a decent shot at derailing Romney because he came close to doing so. Romney would not be the nominee-in-waiting today if Santorum had won in Iowa on the day of the election rather than on a recount; won in Michigan (where he lost by three percentage points); and won in Ohio (where he lost by less than one point). And Santorum might well have accomplished this trifecta if conservatives had taken him seriously early on and rallied around him after Perry became a non-starter. Instead, conservatives were drawn to weaker, less plausible candidates.

This, then, was Romney’s other great piece of good luck – conservative flirtations with Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich, and conservative apathy towards Rick Santorum during much of the campaign. What accounts for this aspect of Romney’s good fortune? I’ll try to answer that question in Part Two.

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