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Why Santorum’s Not Going Away Anytime Soon

Maybe Republicans in their anti-Romney desperation have inadvertently stumbled on an artful new way to fuse religion and politics—every presidential long-shot gets not one but two resurrections. Rick Santorum is officially back from the crypt, and his period in limbo has done him well. For the first time during the 2012 campaign cycle, it actually seems sensible to take Santorum seriously for the long haul.

You couldn’t say that after his narrow victory in Iowa. They say the curse of insurgent campaigns is that they never have the resources to plan how to exploit victories, and Santorum proved that adage true, squandering the opportunity with ill-designed and off-message appearances in New Hampshire. But the clock was working against him, too. With just one week to pivot from rural Iowa to primary day in secular New Hampshire, the under-funded Santorum was doomed. After collecting a pathetic 9 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, Santorum faded from view except as the butt of sweater-vest jokes.

But now Santorum has the campaign schedule on his side. A three-week pause until the February 28 Michigan and Arizona primaries gives Republicans plenty of time to wonder about nominating Mitt Romney, a candidate who arouses all the passions of a dead flashlight battery. This week’s Conservative Political Action Committee convention, where the three leading GOP contenders will speak Friday, is as congenial a venue for Santorum as he could hope for. And the Michigan Republican primary, where Santorum will concentrate his time and sparse campaign funds, tilts towards voters who reflect his blue-collar sensibility and strident social conservatism.

Of course, every TV pundit will feel compelled for the next three weeks to describe Michigan as Romney’s home turf, since the candidate’s father, George, was a two-term governor during the 1960s. But one should take such pronouncements with a grain of salt. Yes, Romney’s family connection helped him win the 2008 Michigan primary, but this isn’t the Kennedys of Massachusetts we’re talking about. In fact, aside from that 2008 primary, I have been on the Michigan ballot more recently than any member of the Romney family: In 1972, I ran a youthful antiwar race for the congressional seat from Ann Arbor—two years after Romney’s mother Lenore was defeated by a two-to-one margin in her bid to challenge Democratic Senator Phil Hart. (I, for one, am under no illusion that today’s Michigan voters nostalgically long for the days when they could vote for Shapiro.)

It’s fair to point out that Santorum’s trio of symbolic victories Tuesday night did not produce a single delegate (Minnesota and Colorado choose their conventioneers later and the Missouri primary was a glorified straw poll). But it may have done something more important for his presidential prospects: kindle serious interest in the nation’s newsrooms and cable TV green rooms. The press pack, invariably cynical about losing presidential candidates who resist the verdict of the voters, was all set to declare Romney the de facto nominee. But suddenly it is no longer fashionable to pronounce the GOP race over or to brood over being the last political commentator with a kind word for Newt Gingrich.

What this means is that Santorum—and to a lesser degree Gingrich—will now benefit from far more press coverage in the weeks leading up to Super Tuesday (March 6) than they otherwise could have expected just a couple of days ago. And all this free media will at least somewhat dampen the many negative ads that Romney’s campaign is surely planning on raining down on Gingrich and Santorum.

Heightened press attention and scrutiny will, of course, be a mixed blessing for Santorum. I have wondered whether Santorum’s months in media purgatory had more to do with the ferocity of the former Pennsylvania senator’s attacks on gay marriage than his 700,000-vote loss for reelection in 2006. In retrospect, why was the ludicrously ill-informed Herman Cain taken more seriously from the outset of the campaign than a former two-term senator from a major state? The truth is, as soon as you scratch Santorum’s earnest, accessible, Dad-on-a-TV-sitcom persona, you find a man with a long record of “man on dog”-type comments.

In that way, it could prove that this is all a blip, that these down days of February won’t even warrant a rueful chapter in the Romney campaign autobiographies. But I doubt it. The man from Bain Capital has always been vulnerable to what Tim Pawlenty long ago called a “Sam’s Club Republican.” What is fascinating is that Rick Santorum, the candidate who may well prove to be Romney’s most lasting foe, has been hiding in plain sight all along.

Walter Shapiro is a special correspondent for The New Republic. He also writes the “Character Sketch” column for Yahoo News. Follow him on twitter @waltershapiroPD.