Rick Santorum Can't Handle the Spotlight at Arizona Republican Debate, But Could Still Win the GOP Nomination in 2012

Rick Santorum has risen from virtual obscurity to become the focus of attacks at last night’s Republican presidential debate in Arizona. Santorum, who had been previously ignored as he watched each rising star fall, is finally getting his chance to shine. However, in last night’s debate he was faced with a barrage of attacks from Mitt Romney as well as concentrated jabs by Ron Paul, and he didn’t seem prepared.

Tact and polish have never been Santorum’s forte, however, and he has still managed to catch up to Romney, the picture of poise. Santorum has successfully brought social issues, such as marriage and religion, to the forefront of these debates and gained followers as a result. Meanwhile, Romney has endured as a constant presence. The Republican nomination seems to be down to a battle between Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney as Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul trail behind. The question is: Will Santorum be able to survive the spotlight and the aggression that face a front runner candidate?

In the past few months Santorum has been able to clinch key victories and actually tied with Romney in national polls. Even after winning the Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota primaries, there was serious doubt as to whether he could eclipse Gingrich and become the Romney alternative. This doubt proved false however, as Santorum achieved frontrunner status, even seeming to be favored in Romney’s home state of Michigan. But this success has made him a target for attack by his rivals. Romney criticized Santorum’s votes for entitlements and his support of Arlen Specter. Ron Paul, whose campaign has been running an aggressive ad against Santorum, confirmed his accusation of Santorum as “fake.” The arguments and accusations between Romney and Santorum became tiresome, allowing Ron Paul and especially Newt Gingrich to seem more attractive, but still lackluster.

Santorum, who has notably made a strong showing in these debates, really dropped the ball when finally placed center stage. When asked to describe himself in one word he spit out “Courage” ... great idea but falling short yet again as “courageous” would have made more sense. He seemed nervous and his responses somewhat weak and clearly unprepared. He was finally able to speak briefly on his focus on strengthening the family but he left no cause for inspiration. This could be the tipping point the other candidates faced when they came under fire, or, as Santorum has never been the candidate of charm, it could not matter in the least.

The targeted attacks Santorum faced in Arizona are no more brutal than those constantly aimed at Romney or even Gingrich. Rick Santorum has earned momentum from a hardworking grassroots campaign and appealing to the social conservatives, not from being the most “likeable” candidate. The accusations brought up in last night’s debate were not a can of worms; they were more of the same finger pointing and compromises; issues every candidate has been accused of except for perhaps Ron Paul. Even Santorum’s less than graceful responses should not be detrimental to his success if the social issues are truly what got him there in the first place.  The true determinant in this nomination process will be what Republicans choose to prioritize. If family values, religious freedom, and pro-life issues are what Republicans are most concerned about, then Rick Santorum should be able to survive this poor showing, especially since none of the candidates did particularly well anyway, perhaps it will be better for everyone if this is the final debate.

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