January 9, 2012


The ABR Underground: A grassroots movement is growing among Republicans. Its motto: Anyone But Romney. Can it make the front-runner fall? (John Heilemann, Jan 6, 2012, New York)

The emergence of Santorum as the most plausible stalking horse for his party's loose but ardent ABR (Anyone But Romney) coalition has taken much of the political class by surprise--and no one more so than me. Having known Santorum since 1994, when I spent a week with him during his first run for Senate, I'll admit that I have always liked him personally despite his holding a set of views that range from appalling (his undeniable homophobia) to apocalyptically dangerous (his out-front commitment to launch air strikes at Iran). At his town-hall meetings in the run-up to Iowa, his political defects were vividly on display: the mirthless, digressive, painfully dull answers, replete with endless and pointless reminiscence, that fairly compel the application of the most deadly adjective available in American politics--senatorial.

Then, at his penultimate event, at a Pizza Ranch in Newton the night before the caucuses, Santorum was asked about some criticism leveled at him over how he and his wife, Karen, handled the death in 1996 of their infant son, Gabriel, after she miscarried: They brought the dead child home so their "children could see him," as Santorum put it; so they could "know they had a brother." Choking back tears--as Karen, standing beside him, let hers flow--Santorum told the story and then chastised those who would attack them for it. "To some who don't recognize the dignity of all human life, who see it as a blob of tissue that should be discarded and disposed of, [what we did] is somehow weird," he said. "Recognizing the humanity of your son is somehow weird, somehow odd, and should be subject to ridicule."

Say what you will about Santorum and his wife's ardent pro-life views and how they chose to process their grief over losing their son. The sincerity and depth of the candidate's feelings on the subject are indisputable, and the moment at the Newton Pizza Ranch was a moving display of his humanity. This is no small part of the attraction that some voters feel for Santorum: There is scarcely a shred of slickness or phoniness about him--something that cannot be said of his rivals, and, indeed, a quality that is the opposite of the perceived plasticity that disturbs many Republicans about Romney. And it is this authenticity of Santorum's, alongside the fervency of his religious commitment and adamancy of his cultural conservatism, that accounts for his eight-votes-short-of-first-place finish in Iowa.

In New Hampshire, though, God-squadders are much thinner on the ground; the state's brand of conservatism is rooted in matters fiscal and a generic distrust of all things federal. Back in 1996, of course, Pat Buchanan beat the Establishment favorite, Bob Dole, in the Granite State, creating a precedent that Santorum is now trying to replicate: the stitching together of a coalition of economically stressed blue-collar voters and a smaller bloc of anti-abortion Catholics.

The troubles with this plan are threefold, however. First, the number of manufacturing jobs in the state has declined precipitously, undercutting a central element of Santorum's economic pitch. Second, when it comes to populism, let's just say that Santorum is no Buchanan; he is more likely to spend ten minutes learnedly parsing E pluribus unum than rallying the peasants to take up their pitchforks. And third, unlike Buchanan, who artfully played down his culture-warrior side in New Hampshire, Santorum finds it impossible not to stray into heavenly territory. In Windham, a question about the Veterans Affairs department somehow led him to mention a radio interviewer who he said had told him, "We don't need a Jesus candidate--we need an economic candidate." "My answer to that," Santorum proudly replied, "was that we always need a Jesus candidate!"

Curdled-milky as talk like this goes down the throats of New Hampshirites, it will be swallowed smilingly, as if it were ambrosia, by many in South Carolina, where fully 60 percent of Republican primary voters in 2008 identified themselves as Evangelical. And so, too, in a state heavy with veterans and military tradition, will Santorum's sharply hawkish views on foreign policy sit well. But in trying to attract both those sets of voters, along with the state's many tea-partyers (please recall that South Carolina's junior senator is Jim DeMint), Santorum will face competition from Gingrich and ­Perry--unless, that is, the ABR forces can forge a consensus to coalesce around him.

Posted by at January 9, 2012 6:58 AM

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