's Mark Halperin wondered openly
this morning whether the mainstream media might be "rooting for" Sen. Rick Santorum in the Republican primary. That could
happen if journalists decide that Santorum would be a weaker general election threat to President Barack Obama than the presumed Republican nominee, Gov. Mitt Romney.
But Halperin's theory is wishful thinking, and obscures one of the most important factors in Santorum's come-from-nowhere success in the Iowa caucuses last night: the former Pennsylvania senator has thrashed the mainstream media relentlessly in the past few weeks, making it clear he has the courage to stand up to the Democrats' Greek chorus.
Most recently, Santorum schooled NBC's David Gregory
and CNN's Candy Crowley
on the subject of Obama's "appeasement" in foreign policy. Santorum showed a patient deftness in drawing a stark contrast with Obama, then defending it with hard facts and fresh, alternative ideas. The journalists, expecting easy prey, were dumbstruck.
Santorum also endured a truly low blow
from Alan Colmes, and overcame bizarre attempts by NPR and CBS
to cast him as a racist. He irritates the mainstream media, and for good reason--because so far, he is beating them.
In a way, Santorum has picked up where former House speaker Newt Gingrich had left off. Gingrich rose through the polls after targeting the media rather than fellow Republicans. His clashes with Romney knocked Gingrich off that message. Yet Santorum also has discipline and an knock for retail politics. He takes his fight with the media off air and offline.
Mainstream journalists like Halperin might
hope that Santorum's red-meat conservatism will prove a liability (as it has, on occasion
). They preach the conventional wisdom that elections are won among voters who are not loyal to either party. That is true, as regards independent voters--but not all independent voters are "moderate." Many so-called independents are true believers who reject the compromises of everyday politics and are drawn to strong leadership above all. And no candidate dare arrive at the polls in November, as McCain did in 2008, without the full support of the party base as well.
Contrasts are important--not just in the primary, but in the general election as well. Santorum's effort to contrast his philosophy of government with that of the president is more compelling than Romney's attempt to assert his superior competence. The mainstream media is quietly aware of that fact--which is why the first attack on Santorum, in his newly-earned status as frontrunner, has been to amplify grassroots concerns
that he is a "big-government conservative." If the differences between Santorum and Romney can be blurred, Santorum will lose the opportunity to cement his new support.
Santorum's "victory" speech in Iowa showed that he understands where the fight is. Voters don't just want a better version of Obama; they want a better vision than Obama's. On fiscal and economic issues, Santorum is saying what fiscal conservatives and Tea Party activists want to hear. Even though he lacks Romney's organization and money, he is going to force the establishment frontrunner speak less abstractly about "restoring America" and start talking about the need for smaller government and greater freedom.
Journalists put on a show of being shocked by what Rick Santorum believes and says, as if his views are unthinkable. The more he continues to fight them on that front, the more support he will draw from conservatives and independents seeking strong leadership in a country where it has been lacking.