Sunday, January 1, 2012

Anti-Romney conservatives face calls to coalesce

KNOXVILLE, Iowa – Even before votes are cast here, movement conservatives across the country are beginning to fear that 2012 will be a replay of the last GOP presidential primary: conservatives divided between candidates, enabling a center-right contender to march up the middle and claim the nomination.

Time is running short on activist Republicans who have long yearned for a unifying Mitt Romney alternative in the race – leading some to worry that if they don’t stop him in Iowa on Tuesday, they may not be able to stop him at all.

Rick Santorum’s late surge in Iowa, coupled with the apparent determination of Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich to make a three-week stand through South Carolina, could augur for a bloody, multi-party battle on the right while Romney rides strength in Iowa and New Hampshire.

That’s led some movement veterans to call for the base to rally around whichever conservative does best in the caucuses on Tuesday — a distinction that polls are showing is likely to go to Santorum.

“I could see the conservative movement coalescing around somebody that comes out of Iowa strong and sort of becomes the conservative candidate out of Iowa and into New Hampshire,” said conservative strategist Greg Mueller, a onetime adviser to the Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes campaigns. “You could see conservatives nationally start to call on the movement, which is not a monolithic thing, to encourage their supporters to get behind the one candidate who might have a shot at winning.”

In some quarters on the right, exasperation with the fractured state of affairs has already boiled over. David Lane, an influential and low-profile Christian conservative, wrote in an email to associates Friday that he feared a redux of 2008, when Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee split the conservative vote to give John McCain a crucial win in South Carolina.

“We have Fred Thompson to thank for McCain as the Republican nominee in 2008,” wrote Lane, who said he sees Santorum playing a similar role this time by undercutting better-funded opponents.

Referring to the local social conservative leaders in Iowa who have endorsed the former Pennsylvania senator in recent weeks, Lane continued, “If Santorum gets traction, we’ll have Santorum (and the IA ‘Family Policy Boys’) to thank for Romney as the Republican nominee in '12, and the reelection of Obama on Nov. 6, 2012.”

In an email to POLITICO, Lane elaborated: “Right now it looks like 2008. Evangelicals, generally speaking, don’t understand politics.”

But with his strong showing in the new Des Moines Register Iowa poll, it appears that Santorum may have a strong claim to make coming out of Iowa that he is the candidate that can unite the right as they try to head off a Romney nomination.

Perry and Michele Bachmann are headed straight to South Carolina and skipping New Hampshire after the caucuses. Not Santorum. In a brief interview following a campaign stop in this central Iowa town, Santorum said that he was headed to the Granite State on Wednesday in an effort to build on expected momentum coming out of the caucuses.

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