Daily Israel Report

Analysis: What is Going On in the Republican Nomination Race?

Why the roller coaster Republican race took another turn and which assumptions will have to be revised.
By Dr. Amiel Ungar
First Publish: 2/8/2012, 1:34 PM

The writer is a political scientist and Arutz Sheva's Global Agenda analyst. He is featured regularly in the Hebrew press and in the Jerusalem Report, lives in Tekoa.

Judging by the way that the race for the Republican nomination has gone so far, it would appear that the voters are perversely voting to confound the prognosticators and the pundits.

The latest installment of this trend is the trifecta put together by former Senator Rick Santorum, who yesterday carried Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri. Santorum, the underfunded longshot, has at least temporarily blocked the Mitt Romney coronation march and re-empowered the Romney skeptics. However, no sooner does the media say that Romney is on the ropes, and he proceeds to win a smashing victory as in Florida.

Only a shift in gears can explain what went right for Rick Santorum in last night's primaries.

Santorum is the "values voter" candidate in the Republican race. When everybody assumed that this was an "it's the economy stupid" presidential race, Santorum continued plugging away at social and religious conservatism. This week when Obamacare appeared to collide with religion and the California court invalidated a gay marriage ban imposed by the voter, Santorum was the best positioned to capitalize on those events.

Mitt Romney's bona fides are still being questioned and Newt Gingrich's marital history makes him a tarnished hero to social conservatives. Santorum has attracted evangelical support and evangelicals represent a large segment of voters in Republican primaries.

Santorum may be this year's Scott Brown, the Republican candidate who made a pickup truck the centerpiece of his surprising victory in Massachusetts when he captured Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in 2010. Instead of the pickup truck, Rick Santorum wears sweater vests. He is a candidate with whom working and middle-class Americans can identify. Romney's wealth makes him a harder sell.

Romney and Gingrich have been hurling dirt at each other and some of the dirt has clung to both of them. Neither of the two has so far bothered to fling dirt at Santorum, who was flying under their radar - and whose supporters they regard as their own. This will now change, as Santorum has shown that he must be taken seriously, but in the meantime, he has benefited from the sometimes overheated Romney versus Gingrich sparring.

Santorum is also the beneficiary of a new trend among the Republican-leaning publications and pundits. Many had accepted the Romney inevitability narrative and had succeeded in angering some of their readers, who rebelled against being force-fed Romney. Lately, these same writers have reversed course and plumped for a Romney-Santorum contest, because Santorum, they felt, constituted a safer alternative to Romney than the unpredictable Gingrich who became the bête noire of the Republican establishment. This new narrative has also helped Santorum.

The most important Santorum victory came in Colorado, a state where Mitt Romney thrashed John McCain four years ago. Now people are looking to see whether this pattern can be replicated in Michigan, Romney's native state where his father George served as governo and which went for Romney in 2008. If Santorum can do well there, he will definitely have bolstered his candidacy and crippled Romney's.

Up to now, Gingrich has been competitive in the South, but feeble above the Mason-Dixon line. The reverse is the case with Rick Santorum. To effectively claim the mantle of the conservative standard bearer, Santorum has to show that he can do well in Dixie and Gingrich has to show that he is more than a favorite son of the South.