CPAC should have been a triumphal moment for Rick Santorum. His sweep of election contests this week put a gale-force wind in his campaign’s sails. At this week’s “Wednesday Meeting” of center-right organizations and activists, hosted by Grover Norquist, there was palpable excitement about the results and Santorum’s prospects. CPAC attendees are a natural base for Santorum, who overall the other nominees has the more consistent, traditional conservative record. Talking to attendees, it was clear they wanted to believe in Santorum. Their hearts were with him, even if their minds were nagged by questions of his electability. Today’s speech was a tailor-made opportunity to put these fears to rest. He whiffed.
To be sure, Santorum’s CPAC speech was better than his normal stump speech, which tends to get bogged down in legislative and policy minutia. He attempted to provide an over-arching vision or narrative for his candidacy. But, his performance was rather lackluster. He received a warm reception from the crowd, but not the stirring response he was primed to receive.
His biggest missed opportunity, though, was dispelling doubts about his electability. His speech contained just a tinge too much of the kind of whining that plagues underdog campaigns. Complaining about “pundits” or the “establishment” or bemoaning one’s lack of financial resources only reinforces the belief that one’s campaign is a long-shot. Coming off three solid victories in a week, this was a mistake. Santorum has won four of the first 8 contests. Speaking to a crowd with a potential strong base of support, he should have assumed the mantle of frontrunner. Instead, he crowned himself the conservative base’s favorite remaining nominee who can’t win the nomination.