5:30am

Wed February 29, 2012
It's All Politics

Santorum & Co. Left To Mourn What Might Have Been in Michigan

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 10:59 am

Rick Santorum and his campaign will likely look back on Michigan's 2012 primary not only as a heartbreaking loss in the battle against Mitt Romney but also as a historic lost opportunity.

The upstart former senator from Pennsylvania was within a few percentage points of toppling the wobbly frontrunner in a state that really mattered.

Unlike his earlier wins in caucus states (Iowa, Colorado, Minnesota) and a nonbinding "beauty contest" (Missouri), a win in Michigan meant a real cache of committed delegates.

Moreover, as Romney's native state and home of his political clan, Michigan had been a cornerstone of his inevitability narrative. To lose it was unthinkable, but how much worse to lose it to Santorum — an also-ran ignored by rivals and reporters alike for months?

The entire political industry had been poised for weeks for a Santorum breakthrough in Michigan, not quite believing it could happen but believing the polls that said it could. Even after a disappointing debate performance on Feb. 22 and a series of unforced errors, Santorum remained in close contention in Michigan. A win for him there would have transformed the conversation about this nomination. It is possible Romney would not have recovered.

But that was not to be. In his zeal, Santorum dissed JFK's legendary 1960 speech on religion and called President Obama a "snob" for talking up college education. He also continued to pursue the issue of birth control and government, making his point about religious liberty but also highlighting his own traditional ideas about contraception.

How much did these issues matter? In Michigan, Santorum nearly matched Romney vote for vote among men. But he lost by 5 percentage points among women. In the end, he lost the state by 3 percentage points.

Did he get the message? You only had to hear his concession speech, in which he lavished praise on his wife and his college-educated mother, who made more than his dad. The word contraception did not feature in his lengthy remarks.

This was not the first time this season that Santorum has blown a chance to turn the tide. In Iowa, he finished in a dead heat with Romney (a later count showed he had actually won by a handful of votes) but was unable to capitalize on that win a week later in New Hampshire (he finished fifth with less than 10 percent).

He got the endorsement of a key group of evangelical heavyweights, who voted for him overwhelmingly at a mid-January meeting in Texas. Yet he made almost no use of their effort in losing South Carolina, where he came in a distant third.

The news that Santorum had actually won the Iowa caucus on Jan. 3 was bad news for Romney. But it never really gave Santorum much of a lift.

All that seemed to change on Feb. 7, when Santorum won the caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota and the nonbinding primary in Missouri. On the strength of this showing on "Trifecta Tuesday," Santorum eclipsed Newt Gingrich as the leading anti-Romney candidate.

Michigan gave him a perfect opening to make good on that placement. But as soon as the path became clear, Santorum seemed to wander off.

The irony is that Santorum may still claim a share of the victory in Michigan. The delegates there are being allocated almost entirely by congressional district. So even in losing the statewide vote, Santorum could win narrow victories in seven or eight of the 14 congressional districts. If he does, he will have no worse than a tie in delegates won.

But it will not matter so much once the cameras have moved on. What Santorum lost, one more time, was the chance to throw a knockout punch and have it land on Romney's big glass jaw.

If Romney finally steadies himself and carries his reluctant Republican Party to victory in November, many will marvel at how close his candidacy came to collapse in February.

Conversely, if the Rick Santorum phenomenon fades or falls apart in the weeks and months ahead, few may recall how close he came to knocking Romney off.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.