What Hath Rick Santorum Wrought?

In the comic book version of the 2012 GOP presidential contest, Rick Santorum would be known as Dr. Chaos. An ex-senator whose name was almost lost to history, Santorum donned his signature sweater vest and transformed into the larger-than-life conservative who’d expose all of Mitt Romney’s existing weaknesses — and create a few new ones.

Santorum’s own campaign proudly reflected on their contribution to the race just after he announced he was stepping aside: We knocked Romney off his economic message, they said.

But in executing an expectations-busting campaign, Santorum lured Romney far away from his economy-based message, forcing the presumptive nominee to take some positions that Republicans believe will be easy for the Obama campaign to exploit.

“In the short term, [Santorum’s campaign] is a net negative because he has hurt Romney’s favorables with women and independents,” said Ford O’Connell, an unaffiliated GOP strategist. “In the long term, it could be a net positive, because Santorum really took Romney out of his comfort zone, particularly when it came to talking about social conservatives and social conservative issues.”

Team Santorum, for its part, is glad they temporarily derailed the train.

Now Romney has to shift to the general election. And thanks to Romney’s maneuvers to respond to Santorum throughout the primary, that’s going to be tough. Santorum gave Romney enough time to bounce back, O’Connell said, but only if Romney learns to avoid following future attempts to knock him off message.

“I put the blame on Romney, really, more than Santorum,” O’Connell said, “because Romney followed him down that hole. That’s why the question is whether or not he learned that lesson.”

Read more from Benjy Sarlin and Evan McMorris-Santoro at TPM

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published this page in In The News 2012-04-10 18:00:00 -0400
Analysis & Political Strategy