As his tax records proved, Mitt Romney is good at making money. As his political fortunes show, he's not as good at spending it effectively. Once again, he was upended by an under-financed long-shot -- something that he never would have allowed in the world of finance. Today he may be wondering if he wouldn't be happier in the middle of a boardroom rather than 3rd in the polls in middle America.
Even after Romney's Florida victory, a show of the force of his money and effectiveness of his team, of his ability to weather attacks and mount some withering assaults of his own, we knew the race wasn't going to be over. Newt Gingrich continued to bank on a Super Tuesday Southern strategy. Ron Paul had nothing to lose by staying in. Only Rick Santorum, low on cash and with family medical issues at home, seemed likely to fade away.
And even after that victory supposedly cemented Romney's frontrunner status, we knew that it was too soon to know anything and wondered, somewhat whimsically, somewhat rhetorically, who or what would be the next obstacle in Romney's path? Would Paul excel in the upcoming caucuses? Would Gingrich hold together an anti-Romney coalition? Would Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels or Chris Christie signal their intention to rise out of a divided convention?
But who would have thought it was Rick Santorum -- who won last night's contests in the key general election swing states of Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri -- that would emerge to give Romney a run for his money?
Santorum's last two debates were most memorable for him praising the slash-and-burn rivals, Romney and Gingrich, as though auditioning to play sidekick to either one. In the run-up to Florida, Santorum's decision to return to PA was viewed as a sign of his waning campaign. Yet now he can claim victory in more contests than any of his rivals.
Ron Paul is hoping to put Maine in his column. Newt Gingrich is hoping to last until March 6th. Santorum is just hoping to get noticed by moneyed anti-Romney interests -- or, perhaps more likely, by evangelicals and other deeply religious voters, whose grassroots giving in the past has supported ballots against marriage equality and Christian Coalition style candidates.
And what is Romney hoping for? He's not hoping for Santorum to self-combust -- because someone else will simply take his place. Romney's goal isn't to beat any particular rival, but to survive a combination of opposition, fatigue and disinterest he has generated throughout his party.
Some would argue this week could have been about current events. Perhaps right-wing religious voters, previously disported, had turned out to express their outrage at the HHS decision on contraception, the Susan G. Komen reversal on Planned Parenthood and yesterday's ruling striking down Prop 8. These media moments may have riled them up for the one man who has been on their side the whole time -- not the guy whose family has donated to Planned Parenthood in the past.
But it feels like Santorum's second surge is less about him and less about a social conservative eruption and more about Romney himself. People don't like to be told who they have to vote for -- especially when it's a guy they don't particularly like -- and they are sending that message.
Sure, Romney can turn considerable firepower against Santorum…but doing so may only allow Gingrich room to regroup, while making Romney look rich, mean and aggressive -- qualities that aren't winning him new fans. The real opponent isn't Santorum or Gingrich or Paul…but the gut instinct among Republican voters, and Romney can't point his missiles against his own party rank-and-file. And he can't just fire them. That would be bad politics.
Maybe he is just bad at politics. He's been running for office since 1994 and has only one once -- so this is something he's not very good at. Maybe he should return to the his past career, what his rivals called "vulture capitalism." After all, he does seem much better at taking advantage of regular Americans than at appealing to them.