Is Rick Santorum the front-runner next time?

In a recent column, Peggy Noonan makes an interesting observation about Mitt Romney and Republicans. I think we might consider how it applies to Rick Santorum.

Writing about the 2012 Republican presidential race, and its culmination in Romney as the clear winner, Noonan reflects:

So what have we learned? The GOP presidential contest of 2012 is over. Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee. What do we know now that we didn’t know in 2011, when the campaign began? Or what do we know that we already knew, but now we’ve been reminded?

We learned that primogeniture is still a force in the GOP. The next king is the firstborn son of the current king. In political terms, the guy who came in second in the last presidential cycle stands most likely to be crowned and anointed in the current one. Republicans, for all their drama, still tend toward the orderly and still credit experience.

Sure, this makes sense—oftentimes. When I first read Noonan’s claim, my mind worked backward, to previous GOP presidential races. It made sense for Romney this time, as it did for John McCain the last time, for Bob Dole before him, for George H. W. Bush prior to Dole, for Reagan—who nearly unseated the incumbent Gerald Ford in 1976—and so on.

But then my mind started moving forward, which brings me to this thought: If the pattern holds, isn’t Rick Santorum the front-runner for the next Republican presidential race, whether in four years or eight years? He finished second, after all. Besides, Santorum is young. By no stretch should we expect him to be finished. And he is a fighter, tenacious, principled. You can never count out Rick Santorum. The man lost his Pennsylvania Senate race by 18 percent six years ago, and yet somehow rebounded to the point where he just finished second in the GOP presidential pursuit. That’s pretty darn remarkable.

Is he the next GOP front-runner? Alas, inspiring as the thought may be to Santorum supporters, I wouldn’t take much stock in the likelihood of Rick being the nominee next time. Consider:

The Republican field in 2012 was weak. I believe that Santorum went as far as he did because he was the most appealing Anyone-But-Romney candidate remaining after the exit of Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, and the others. He was the most viable conservative alternative, preferable to Newt Gingrich, who is forever saddled by the personal baggage. That’s not to take anything away from Santorum, who was terrific, and earned everything he got—but I think it’s largely accurate.

To the contrary, the next Republican line-up for the next election cycle should be one of the strongest in decades: Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Nikki Haley, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Michelle Bachmann, maybe even Sarah Palin, just to name a few. The current election cycle was depressingly poor for the Republican field. In 2016, or 2020, it should be much stronger. That strength will work against Santorum as the likely nominee. Yes, he was the second-place finisher in 2012, but I can’t imagine him as a lock for the front-runner position in 2016 or 2020. He would need to do something notably distinctive in the interim, perhaps like Nixon in his “Wilderness Years” (1962-68), writing books, travelling, speaking, adding weight and credibility to his name and his cause.

Of course, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Rick Santorum over the years—and I first met him over 20 years ago—he never ceases to impress and defy all expectations. If anyone can surprise us yet again, it’s Santorum.

Good luck, Rick. And good job. It was quite a run.

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9 thoughts on “Is Rick Santorum the front-runner next time?

  1. Jim Bourque says:

    Hope so – that would mean intelligent and sane governance till at least 2020.

  2. daisy says:

    I think the next election might be a moot point but even if I’m wrong the next nominee will not be Santorum. He’d be alright as a congressman or a governor but I just didn’t see president in him.

  3. Sam says:

    Rick Santorum is a man of very admirable Catholic ideals. That being said, he was a lousy candidate for President. Whether you are running for President or dogcatcher, voters have to like you on some basic level. Santorum unfortunately comes off as a grump and somebody who lectures at people.

    He needs to see if he can win an elective office in PA. Senator, Governor, Congress. If he can, maybe he is young enough to try a Presidential run again some day. If he can not win another office, then he is done.

  4. [...] Is Rick Santorum the Front-Runner Next Time? – Paul Kengor, Catholic Vote [...]

  5. rayray says:

    Well, if you like the statist quo, Rick’s certainly your man.

  6. Concerned says:

    Can someone tell me why Rick Santorum has not endorsed Romney yet?

    1. NickH says:

      The same reason(s) why Ron Paul hasn’t withdrawn and endorsed him as well -they all live in La-La Land and would rather push a certain agenda -no matter how good and right they may be- and hand the election to Obama. I appreciate both Santorum and Paul, for different reasons of course, but the main objective is to bounce Obama! Geesh.

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