Santorum Surprise -- Strong Showing in Iowa Caucuses Presents GOP With a Conservative Alternative

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Published January 04, 2012

| FoxNews.com

After months of debates, flash in the pan favorites and campaign ups and downs, the GOP finally has its conservative alternative.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, the man whom many feared faced electability issues against Barack Obama, came just a handful of votes short of defeating former Massachussets Gov. Mitt Romney, whom many insisted was the most electable candidate, in the first in the nation Iowa caucuses. 

It was the little engine that could verses the big, experienced engine that many conservative Republican voters wished wouldn’t. 

In one night, the inevitability narrative surrounding Mitt Romney has been hindered. 

In the words of Santorum during his speech to his supporters last night, “Game on.”

Up until now, the fight appeared to be between Romney and anybody but Romney. Now it’s apparent that the Republican Party is indeed split into those two groups. 

The differences between the two candidates are stark: Santorum is a consistent conservative who put all his chips on Iowa. A beneficiary of Romney’s full frontal assault on Gingrich over the past few weeks with a barrage of negative ads, Santorum was the last man to rise in the polls with pitch perfect messaging that resonated with conservatives.

On the other hand, Romney rose early in the polls but failed to fully capture the imagination of the GOP electorate. 

Romney didn’t do much better in Iowa than he did four years ago, which is a devastating blow. 

Unlike Santorum, Romney has plenty of money and manpower. He has the backing of the GOP establishment, and the benefit of having run in Iowa for essentially five years. But both men have remained unscathed when it comes to facing fire from their opponents. That all changes now.

Santorum will spend six of the next seven days in New Hampshire going after Romney. With Gingrich planning to unleash negative attacks on Romney in retaliation, Gingrich could be Santorum’s secret weapon the same way Ron Paul was to Romney in Iowa by attacking Gingrich. 

Remember, revenge is a dish best served cold and the temps in the Granite State make it the perfect location.

Though Romney is headed toward friendly territory in New Hampshire, his campaign was hoping to face off against unpredictable Ron Paul instead of an unexpected surge by Santorum. 

The Romney camp would have much rather preferred a Paul-Romney photo finish as they could have quickly turned the race into a choice between the two. This would have benefited Romney, given Paul’s questionable views on foreign affairs and the recent scandal surrounding his racist and homophobic newsletters.

If Santorum hopes to have any chance of victory beyond Iowa, a few things must happen.

First, he must use this win to raise critical campaign cash and must put together an operation that helps him place in the top three in New Hampshire. 

He must also be prepared to do what no candidate has done thus far: go negative on Mitt Romney.

Finally, he must pull the support of his rivals when they exit the race such as the Bachmann or Perry supporters.

New Hampshire isn’t a lock for Romney either. Considered favorable turf in 2008, Romney lost the state to John McCain. If Santorum can place there, he can build momentum into South Carolina. But doubts still linger whether he can match Romney’s well-oiled machine in the months that follow.

Rick Santorum showed us that slow and steady can win a race (even if it was an extremely close second). The question now is whether he can win a marathon.

Andrea Tantaros is a conservative commentator and co-host of "The Five" on Fox News Channel. Follow her on Twitter @andreatantaros.

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