Santorum-Romney Battle Reveals Stark Divide in the GOP
The big, cheering crowd in the school gymnasium here Friday night spoke to the distance Rick Santorum has traveled since those lonely days when his candidacy was dismissed as a hopeless exercise. It spoke also to the divide that now defines the Republican presidential campaign.
Santorum’s victories in Alabama and Mississippi last week cemented his status as Romney’s principal rival. What he needs to go even farther, however, is to defeat Romney in a state like Illinois, whose primary is Tuesday.
As Santorum closed out his rally Friday night, he sounded as if he were looking for a political miracle. “You can turn this race completely on its head,” he said. “No one is expecting us to do well in Illinois.”
Why is a state like Illinois so potentially difficult for Santorum? He once led the polls in both Michigan and Ohio, two other Midwestern industrial states, and one poll taken little more than a week ago showed him within a few points of Romney here. But in the end he fell short in those two other heartland battlegrounds. He could be heading toward the same outcome on Tuesday, as more recent polls are suggesting.
So much has been written about frontrunner Mitt Romney’s inability to put away his rivals with greater ease and why he hasn’t wrapped up the nomination more quickly. But another part of this contest is why it may not be possible for Santorum, the candidate seemingly most in tune with the Republican base, to overtake Romney, who has been unable to win over significant portions of that base.
The reasons only partly relate to Romney’s or Santorum’s skills as a candidate, or even the huge differential in resources. What now defines the contest for the Republican nomination are the demographics of today’s Republican Party.
Whatever weaknesses people ascribe to Romney or Santorum as candidates, the Republican race is turning on the economic and religious divides in the GOP coalition. That’s why states like Illinois, Michigan and Ohio are difficult for Santorum and states like Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee were hard for Romney.