Win or lose tonight in Michigan, and late polling suggests a narrow Santorum win, Rick Santorum has already triumphed. With the President and Governor Romney, Senator Santorum is today one of three people who could be the next President of the United States. Like no Pennsylvanian in living memory, Santorum has scaled the heights of national politics, as he plays David against Goliath, in the form of the "inevitable," well-financed Mitt Romney.
Perpetually underestimated, Santorum throughout his career superbly senses political opportunity and vulnerability, excepting his peculiar failure in 2006, when he should have not sought re-election. Santorum displayed his normally sharp political instinct most recently by engineering his shocking triumphs in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri, which he won, while Romney and Gingrich focused exclusively on Florida.
Santorum, however, first demonstrated his political genius nearly 25 years ago, by ousting a veteran Democratic congressman, and then again by jumping into a weak primary field to take on Senator Wofford, in what proved to be a great year for GOP insurgents--1994. As the race for President formed in 2011, Santorum again saw opportunity created by a weak Republican field and at the time a weakened President.
In politics, Santorum makes his own good luck by being dogged and a political master. His success rests on real fire in the belly fueled by a personal fanaticism that is both a huge strength and weakness. Santorum starts political campaigns when few would, continues long after most would have given up, and gathers admirers and real enemies as he goes. But the secret to Santorum's success is not his hard work and right wing boldness or, many would say, extremism.
Instead, Santorum's political genius reflects his superior understanding--better than all his GOP Presidential competitors--of what drives and motivates Republican rank and file voters. He has his finger on the pulse of what Santorum calls the Cracker Barrel Republican that says is the heart of the modern GOP. Santorum knows how to rile up this constituency and Santorum's personality works best when the Republican base is angry, as it was in1994, when he won the senate seat, and is today. Santorum is not a man for all seasons but angry times.
Santorum's arrival at this moment, when he stands on the cusp of defeating Governor Romney in his home state, is a uniquely personal triumph for Rick Santorum. It is hard to think anyone else could have done it and of course nobody else did.
Win or lose tonight, Santorum has made himself a force in Republican national politics in 2012 and beyond. If he actually wins Michigan tonight, Santorum becomes the favorite for the Republican nomination.
Also, if Santorum ultimately defeats the Republican Goliath named Romney, smart Democrats will not underestimate him in the fall. To do so could be fatal. These are angry times, fueled by 8.3% unemployment and $3.70 gasoline, when Santorum excels and knows how to beat political giants like President Obama.