Sunday’s headlines were all about Mitt Romney winning the Maine caucuses and the CPAC straw poll of conservative activists, both on Saturday. But the sounds coming out of the Romney camp more likely were sighs of relief than victory cheers. And the real political energy seemed to have shifted to his chief Republican rival, Rick Santorum.
Powered by a big bump in national polling, plus an infusion of new campaign cash thanks to his victories Tuesday in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado, Santorum says he intends to go after Mr. Romney in the former Massachusetts governor's home state of Michigan. And Sarah Palin’s comments about Romney Sunday are sure to help him, even though she continues to be a tease about her eventual endorsement.
"I trust that [Romney’s] idea of conservatism is evolving, and I base this on a pretty moderate past he has had, even in some cases a liberal past," Ms. Palin told Fox News Sunday. "I am not convinced, and I don’t think that the majority of GOP and independent voters are convinced.”
Speaking on TV talk shows Sunday, Mr. Santorum called Romney “desperate” in his recent attacks on the former Pennsylvania senator, and Santorum predicted that he would do “exceptionally well” in the next major primary election in Michigan.
"We're going to spend a lot of time in Michigan and Arizona, and those are up next. And that's where we've really been focusing on," Santorum told ABC's "This Week." As reported by the Associated Press, Santorum suggested that a strong showing in those contests would make the presidential contest "a two-man race," dismissing current rivals Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul.
Santorum may be competitive among the four remaining GOP presidential rivals – perhaps even the man to beat now. But he’s not necessarily the leader in most recent polls.
The Real Clear Politics polling average ranks them this way: Romney 30.6 percent, Santorum 24.8 percent, Gingrich 20.2 percent, and Paul 13.6 percent. In the same poll averaging, President Obama is 10.3 percentage points ahead of Santorum but just 4.3 percentage points ahead of Romney. (Congressman Paul does better than Santorum by this measure.) The Intrade prediction market gives Romney a 79 percent chance of winning the GOP nomination; Santorum has just a 13 percent chance, according to Intrade.
But in a new Public Policy Polling (PPP) national poll of usual Republican primary voters, released Saturday, Santorum is at 38 percent to 23 percent for Romney, 17 percent for Gingrich, and 13 percent for Paul.
As he has elsewhere, Santorum ranks high in favorability here – 64 percent positive to 22 percent negative. That’s much better than Romney (44-43) or Gingrich (42-44). “Republicans are significantly souring on both Romney and Gingrich,” PPP reports.
In addition, according to this survey (taken Feb. 9 and 10), Santorum is now “completely dominating with several key segments of the electorate” – those describing themselves as “very conservative,” tea party voters, and evangelicals.
“It’s been an amazingly fast ascent to first place for Rick Santorum,” said Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling, who adds a cautionary note for Santorum. “When he comes under attack in the coming days his lead could evaporate just as quickly as it was created.”