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First Thoughts: Why not Santorum?

Santorum surges in new poll, but that surge could be short lived… Breaking down Iowa’s conservative vs. non-conservative vote… Romney’s playing to win in Iowa… What we learned in our Gingrich interview… Where have the Palins/Cains/Huckabees/DeMints gone?... And Kucinich vs. Kaptur in Ohio.

*** Why not Santorum? If you believe the new CNN/Time poll numbers out of Iowa -- and some are questioning the survey's methodology -- then Rick Santorum is the latest GOP presidential candidate to begin to surge, jumping 11 points in less than a month. And, in some ways, the surge is fitting. After all, he is a more consistent conservative than the other candidates (especially Romney, Paul, and Gingrich); he has busted his tail campaigning throughout Iowa the old fashioned way (one county, church, Pizza Ranch and coffee house at a time); and he's been a consistently solid performer at the debates. What’s more, he’s won statewide in an important swing state TWICE (though also lost there badly in 2006), and he’s a big hawk on national security and Iran (an issue that could become bigger and bigger in the days ahead). So why not Santorum? In these ways, his surge seems to make more sense than Gingrich’s did a month ago.

*** And why his surge might be short lived: But here's the big reason why Santorum’s surge might be short lived, even if he's able to maintain it through Jan. 3: Like Gingrich and Cain before him, he lacks the organization and money to compete for the long haul. In addition, he’s viewed as a bit too conservative, especially on social issues (one example: on contraception). Santorum was on “TODAY” this morning, displaying his conservative credentials. “What I say I’m going to do is what I’ve done in the past… We’ve got the record to back it up.”

*** Iowa’s conservative vs. non-conservative vote: In that CNN/Time poll, Romney is in first place among likely caucus-goers at 25% (up five points from earlier in the month), Paul is in second at 22% (also up five), Santorum is at 16% (up 11), Gingrich is at 14% (down a whopping 19 points), Perry at is at 11% (up two), and Bachmann is at 9% (also up two). But look at those numbers this way: When you add up the percentages for the conservative/evangelical bloc of Santorum/Gingrich/Perry/Bachmann, you get 50%, versus the combined 47% for the moderate/establishment/outsider bloc of Romney/Paul. In a way, this explains last night’s defection by former Bachmann Iowa state chairman Kent Sorenson to Team Paul. If four GOP candidates are dividing up that 50% conservative/evangelical bloc, then Romney is likely to win this contest. But if it’s three -- or even two -- dividing up the 50%, you can see how Romney could lose.

*** Romney’s playing to win in Iowa: Yet everything we’ve seen in the last week or two suggests that Romney is playing to win in Iowa. The latest sign: The Des Moines Register is reporting that Romney will hold a post-caucus party in Des Moines. “The next morning, the former governor will do press interviews before flying to New Hampshire, the next state on the voting calendar and a crucial contest for Romney.” Folks, that is playing to win. Talk about confidence The safe move -- and the one that seemed telegraphed a few weeks ago -- would be to travel to the friendly confines of New Hampshire before or immediately after the caucuses, to downplay their importance and do the morning shows from Manchester, NH. But his campaign is now playing them up (and finishing anywhere outside of the top spot or JUST behind Ron Paul would be embarrassing). Here’s another sign of increased confidence: Team Romney is up with a new 60-second TV ad, which is taken straight out his stump speech. And get this: The campaign has approximately 1,000 advertising points on the air in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines. That’s playing to win.

*** What we learned from our interview with Gingrich: We learned a few things when one of us interviewed Gingrich in Iowa yesterday. He said he needs to finish only in the top four in Iowa but then win South Carolina. “You have to be in top three or four,” Gingrich said. “This is so bunched and confused you could have 100 votes separating -- you've got to come out of here credible enough.” When asked if he needs to win Iowa or New Hampshire, he answered no. "You need to win South Carolina... [E]veryone who has won South Carolina has been the nominee. Every single one." He said -- honestly -- that no one would pick him as a VP choice. “I am too strong a personality. Would you want to be the presidential nominee with me as your vice presidential nominee?... I believe in very bold, very decisive change.” And he admitted that he maintains a relationship with his first wife. “With my first wife we have a relationship because we share two daughters and two grandchildren. I think it is very respectful on both sides.” His second wife? “We don’t have a relationship.”

*** Where have all the conservative voices gone? Here’s a question worth asking: Where are all the endorsements, especially from prominent conservatives? Has anyone heard a peep from Sarah Palin? What about Herman Cain? Mike Huckabee still hasn’t endorsed anyone. And neither has Sen. Jim DeMint. In fact, a DeMint spokesman tells First Read that the senator won’t be endorsing anyone, that DeMint announced it a month ago, and that it’s not changing. So at the very time when Romney appears like he’s close to clinching the GOP nomination -- and maybe in January -- some of the top conservative/Tea Party voices are remaining silent. We’ve come a LONG WAY since Palin crashed Romney’s June campaign announcement in New Hampshire and took a shot at his health-care law at Bunker Hill.

*** Kucinich vs. Kaptur: Lastly, we have ourselves a good Democratic House primary to watch next year. Yesterday, liberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) announced that he will primary Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D) after he lost his seat in redistricting. Kucinich had explored the possibility of trying to run for a seat in Washington state (which could end up hurting him in the Buckeye State), but he eventually decided on Kaptur’s seat. “Our campaign will focus on jobs and peace - supporting Ohioans and challenging Washington,” Kucinich said in an fundraising email yesterday.

Countdown to Iowa caucuses: 5 days
Countdown to New Hampshire primary: 12 days
Countdown to South Carolina primary: 23 days
Countdown to Florida primary: 33 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 37 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 68 days
Countdown to Election Day: 315 days

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