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The Trail: 2012 Presidential News from the Field / commentary

Rick Santorum's Illinois Comedy of Errors

The total ineptness of his ragtag, seat-of-the-pants campaign is killing his momentum -- and making Mitt Romney look better by comparison.

March 20, 2012

Rick Santorum's Illinois campaign is a mess.

First, he failed to file delegate slates for four of the state's 18 congressional districts, making him ineligible to win 10 of the 54 delegates at stake in the state's Tuesday primary. Then in 10 other districts, he may not have submitted the required signatures with his delegate petitions -- but he stayed on the ballot when Romney's campaign withdrew its challenge. (More on that in a bit.)

Still, Santorum's Illinois organization was confident that it could pull off a big, impressive election-eve surprise -- one that would surely get the candidate a lot of buzz for the momentum he was picking up in the state: "At a Monday rally in Dixon, Ronald Reagan's boyhood home, five [Newt] Gingrich delegate candidates would announce they are switching their allegiance to Santorum," Politico's Reid Epstein reported.

 

After Epstein's original story was published, though, his source -- Jon Zahm, Santorum's Illinois state director -- admitted that he had perhaps oversold the event.

No Gingrich delegate candidates would appear at Santorum's Dixon rally, Zahm said. "Obviously several or more Newt Gingrich delegates and alternate delegates are wavering and have indicated that to their supporters and to others," Zahm said. "But it appears that these people do not have the courage to do so on the record."

The blow here is not to Santorum's hopes of accumulating delegates -- those are already more or less doomed -- so much as it is to his larger emotional argument that people are rallying to his cause. Santorum's campaign is, as his spokesman memorably told National Journal's Naureen Khan, built on "a MacGyver model. We give Rick a hamburger and a road map and he wins Iowa." The idea of a spontaneously joined movement of people swept up in a cause is a powerful one.



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But running a loose, improvisational, non-control-freak campaign also has a very big downside, and that is that everything is out of control all the time -- including the candidate, who is off-message so frequently that it's become the rule rather than the exception. Santorum likes to refer derisively to Romney's juggernaut of a campaign, with its well-oiled machine and its bevy of negative ads, playing up the David-and-Goliath contrast. But Romney's counterargument -- that Republicans will need a well-organized leviathan of a campaign to go up against the Obama machine -- becomes more persuasive every time Santorum makes news for the wrong reasons.

In fact, the Santorum campaign's ineptness is making the Romney campaign look better than it otherwise might. For all its billing as the best organization money could buy. Romney's operation isn't necessarily such a tight ship either.

In Illinois, Romney's delegates were challenged on procedural grounds and might have been kicked off ballots across the state thanks to the bumbling of his own Illinois campaign. The reason they stayed on? The Romney camp made a deal with the Santorum camp that both sides would drop their delegate challenges.

Romney's campaign, which never expected still to be fighting for the nomination in mid-March, isn't actually all that well organized. But next to Santorum's Keystone Kops act, it looks positively formidable.

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