How and Why Did Rick Santorum Make it to April?

By Bob Cesca: The big news of the last 24 hours isn’t that Rick Santorum finally dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination, allowing Mitt Romney to focus his money and protocol droid attention on the general election. The truly big newsis the fact that Rick Santorum made it to April as a relatively strong candidate.

Santorum Drops By Iowa State Fair

Rick Santorum: Truly the least impressive rival imaginable. (Photo credit: Talk Radio News Service)

Every four years there are inevitably several candidates from each party who are, to be frank, obvious losers. There’s an expectation that the weak no-names, the freaks and the vanity projects will never reach top shelf, A-list status leaving the truly solid candidates to direct their attention at winning and not deflecting shots from the cheap seats. Some of the D-list crowd will drop out before the Iowa and New Hampshire, others will stick around as an exercise in electoral masturbation. But they’re never talked about in terms of being a potential nominee or even vice presidential short-lister.

In 2008, on the Democratic side, no one expected Mike Gravel, Chris Dodd or Tom Vilsack to make it very far. Dennis Kucinich, Joe Biden and Evan Bayh never came close to being a frontrunner. So Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and (kind of) Bill Richardson could afford to maintain a narrow focus on a relatively small candidate pool. And even elbow-deep into the primaries, Edwards and Richardson never had a realistic shot.

This year, on the Republican side, almost every candidate attained frontrunner status at some point in the proceedings. We’re all familiar with the clown car passengers. And out of all of the clowns who wedged their giant shoes into the driver’s seat, very few people ever would’ve expected Rick Santorum to make it this far — much less enjoy a series of 10 primary victories. Ten!

That’s remarkable considering Santorum’s most recent electoral contest, his 2006 reelection campaign for the U.S. Senate, was an unmitigated failure in which he lost by 18 points, and, meanwhile, most of the internet community knew more about the Dan Savage frothy butt spooge meme than Santorum’s actual history and platform. His stunning longevity and unpredictable success as a candidate seemed incongruous with who he actually is.

So what does this say about Santorum and the Republican Party?

On one hand, Santorum should get a little bit of credit for surviving and, in fact, flourishing for this long. Mitt Romney raised $76 million to Santorum’s $16 million. Yet Romney had to flail and fight to pry every vote out of Santorum’s fringy grasp. If Santorum gets any credit as a candidate for making it this far, it was really due to two things: he could speak quite fluently and precisely during the debates, and the things he said were squarely in the psycho-wheelhouse of the tea party base. While Mitt Romney was jittery and uncomfortable, and while Newt Gingrich was, well, a dick, Santorum, in the eyes of the base, seemed like a the perfect cocktail of slick, effortless talking and unflinching conservatism. No one else in those debate could boast such a combination.

On the other hand, it’s very likely that history will remember Santorum’s successful failure (with apologies to Apollo 13) as being symptomatic of a collapsing, disjointed, leaderless Republican Party. So the primary process was, like the personal lives of Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, an ongoing dramatic narrative of marriages, affairs and divorces, with the “we’ll settle for [blank]” candidate — Romney — waiting in the wings. Practically speaking, it was just a matter of time and attrition before it would be Santorum’s turn.

If we match this revolving door, 15-minutes-of-fame process with the Supreme Court-sanctioned Super PAC money, we have Rick Santorum surviving into April. Wealthy financier Foster Friess was Santorum’s leading non-campaign spokesman and pumped $1.7 million into his Santorum Super PAC. Without it, it’s unlikely Santorum’s disorganized, piss-poor campaign could’ve survived. While we’re here, we can probably write a similar epitaph for Newt Gingrich who was out of money and knee-deep in scandals (remember the bling and the “right-wing social engineering” things?) more than a year ago and yet somehow managed to get this far.

If I were forced to choose which factor contributed most to Santorum’s longevity, I’m absolutely siding with the latter: the spastic Republican Party and the existence of Super PACs allowed an otherwise D-list candidate get to a point where he was a potential spoiler, and maybe even the nominee in a brokered convention scenario.

So it’s Mitt Romney versus President Obama this year. The real poop-flinging insanity hasn’t even started yet. Hang on tight.

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  • DC Wilson

    Bob, I would add to your list of reasons Santorum survived the fact that no one really likes Romney. Whether it’s because of his religion or his lack of authenticity, a huge swath of the republican electorate just doesn’t care for him. The amazing thing is, how someone with such extreme views as Santorum got this far. Look at the other candidates.

    Pawlenty: Dull as dishwater.
    Bachmann: Always has this look on her face that she’s one french fry away from a full psychotic episode.
    Cain: Mired in sex scandals and completely clueless about everything.
    Perry: Dumb as a post.
    Huntsman: The less interesting Romney.
    Gingrich: Can anyone spend five minutes in his presence without feeling the need to get a shower?

    Santorum got were he was, despite his medieval views, simply by being the one candidate who could speak in complete sentences while at the same time, not putting the voters to sleep or making them nauseous.