On Feb. 6, it all seemed so clear. Mitt Romney had won landslides in Florida and Nevada and looked set to soon lock up the Republican presidential nomination to take on US President Barack Obama in November.
However, if a week is a long time in US politics, two weeks is an age. The meteoric rise of Christian conservative Rick Santorum, a strong opponent of gay marriage and abortion, has turned the race on its head.
Victories on Feb. 7 in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado have catapulted Santorum from a distant third to first — a Gallup poll now gives the former Pennsylvania senator an 8 percentage point lead over Romney nationally.
Should he pull off a win next Tuesday in Romney’s home state of Michigan, all bets will be off and the Republican establishment will be left facing the specter of a bitter fight all the way to its convention at the end of August.
There is no disguising the fact that Santorum’s views on subjects like homosexuality and abortion are out of step with many in the US and some are predicting there will be panic in the Republican Party should he win Michigan.
At the heart of the matter is the fact that his brand of highly moralistic social conservatism, which plays well in the Republican primaries, is seen as sharply at odds with the centrist message needed to win a general election. Romney carries baggage from his governorship of liberal Massachusetts, including well-documented flip-flops on gay marriage and abortion, and has demonstrated an inability to connect with core Republican voters.
It is now anyone’s guess whether his campaign’s superiority in terms of wealth and organization will be enough to carry him over the line.
In a sign of growing desperation, a prominent Republican senator told ABC News recently that if Romney loses Michigan, the party should try to entice a new candidate into the race.
“We’d get killed,” the unnamed senator replied when asked how Romney would then fare against Obama. “He’d be too damaged, if he can’t even win in Michigan, where his family is from, where he grew up.”
What about Santorum?
“He’d lose 35 states,” the senator said, predicting the same fate for former US House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich.
If no one reaches the magic number of 1,144 delegates in the state-by-state voting battle, it allows for what is called a brokered convention, when backroom deals are needed to push a certain candidate over the top.
A new candidate could theoretically enter the later contests and win enough delegates to present themselves at the convention as the party’s savior.
Karl Rove, former US president George W. Bush’s chief strategist, dismissed the idea as “about as remote as life on Pluto” on Fox News Sunday, saying that pundits were suffering from “premature electionitis” so early on in the contest.
However, Joe Trippi, former campaign manager to one-time Democratic hopeful Howard Dean, disagreed, saying that if Romney loses Michigan, “the train wreck keeps happening” and someone new will likely jump in.
Names being bandied about are former Florida governor Jeb Bush, US Representative Paul Ryan, who serves as House of Representatives Budget Committee chairman, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and even former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
“All of these people have refused already and it has only become harder since that time,” the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel cautioned on Fox News Sunday.