Rick Santorum is quickly learning the ropes of being a serious contender for the Republican nomination for president in 2012. First you win a significant primary or four, then you attack front-runner Mitt Romney as insufficiently conservative and then you deny any knowledge of the organization raising millions of dollars in your behalf.
The former U.S. senator managed to accomplish all of that since his three-state sweep of Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado this week. On the trail in Oklahoma City today, Santorum decried Romney's "gotcha politics," and complained that Romney is not focusing on the issues - a nearly verbatim reprisal of Newt Gingrich's lament when he threatened the former Massachusetts governor's preeminence in South Carolina.
Mixing it up with reporters at his campaign event, Santorum was asked a question that by now has become a 2012 campaign standard: "Senator, who is Foster Friess and how dependent are you on his donations?"
Obligingly, Santorum delivered what has become the standard 2012 campaign answer: He doesn't know a thing about the super PAC underwritten by the wealthy investor and conservative booster, the one likely to determine the future of his campaign, or, whether his campaign has a future. "I have no idea what Foster Friess is doing to my super PAC," Santorum said of the man who stood beside him on the podium on the night he claimed victory in three states on Tuesday. But he helpfully added, "He's been a friend of mine for 20 years."
Where have we heard that before? Too many places to name.
For his part, Romney is very likely to perpetuate another staple of campaign 2012: political whack-a-mole. Whenever the conservative base starts to flirt with an alternative to Romney, he pounds the object of their affection with so much negative advertising that by the next primary, conservative and tea party voters are not interested in a second date.
Romney learned this lesson (again) from his three-state loss to Santorum: As soon as he gets complacent, and allows himself to believe that conservatives have accepted his fait accompli-ness, he starts losing. After convincing victories in Nevada and delegate-rich Florida, Romney spent virtually no money on political advertising in Tuesday's primary states. "Big mistake," says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.
"We've seen whenever the resources end up being equalized, the conservative base comes roaring back and says 'no' to Mitt Romney," Sabato said in his e-newsletter today. "So it's now clear Romney is going to have to flood any state he wants to win with negative ads aimed at the opponent who's popped up in the whack-a-mole contest."
And who will pay for all of those new ads? Well, there's a super PAC called Restore Our Future that has at least $24 million in the bank and seems to favor the front-runner. But don't ask Romney. He won't know a thing about it.