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Stakes Highest for Santorum in South Carolina Debate

Stakes Highest for Santorum in South Carolina Debate; Utah Man Ends Quest for Nomination of Party He Believes to be Insane

Santorum Must Make Triple Play Tonight

“They don’t know America. They don’t understand America. If all you think we need to do is cut government and reduce taxes, you don’t understand America. America is a moral enterprise not an economic enterprise.”

-- Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum campaigning in Florence, S.C. talking about libertarian-leaning Republicans.

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. -- The bid by cultural conservatives to anoint Rick Santorum as the winner of the “Not Romney” Republican intra-primary primary has run aground.

That leaves the former Pennsylvania senator as the man with the most at stake in tonight’s FOX News/Wall Street Journal/South Carolina GOP debate. A breakout showing could revive Santorum’s chances, but if he fails, his campaign will founder.

The FOX News poll out today shows Santorum in a statistical three-way tie for second place nationally among Republican voters with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and libertarian-leaning Texas Rep. Ron Paul.

But in make-or-break South Carolina, Santorum trails Gingrich, who represented neighboring Georgia in Congress for 20 years, by an average of nearly 8 points in recent state polls. Santorum has been losing steam since his post-Iowa boom while Gingrich’s support has seemed to solidify following a December swoon and a backlash against his attacks on frontrunner Mitt Romney’s business record.

But more difficult for Santorum is that while his momentum has stalled, Paul, riding publicity from his second-place finish in New Hampshire, has gained ground. Plus, South Carolina’s Saturday primary is open to all registered voters, allowing Paul-backing independents to have their say.

Meanwhile, Christian conservatives are complaining about the effort by leaders in their movement to designate Romney as the consensus candidate for social-issue voters. Santorum’s victory in a contentious multi-ballot contest at a Texas retreat for activist leaders has devolved into accusations of vote rigging and double crosses. One participant told Power Play that the whole effort “was a mistake.”

“We never should have tried to speak with one voice. We should have talked about the issues and let people make up their own minds,” he said.

The participant said he wasn’t aware of any shenanigans in the voting – the Washington Times reports some Gingrich backers claim that they were tricked into leaving before the final ballot – but that he found the process “unworthy.”

The acrimony stems from the fact that the gap between the libertarian-minded Goldwater conservatives in the GOP and the social conservative movement isn’t so stark these days. Many of the cultural conservatives prefer Gingrich, or even Paul, on issues like taxes, spending, gun rights and labor laws.

While Santorum has been unstinting in his social conservatism and support for an aggressive prosecution of a war against radical Islamism, he tended to reflect the more moderate views of his home state on other topics. Had Rick Perry been better at running for president, his fusion of social and Tea Party conservatism was what down-the-line conservatives were looking for this year.

So Santorum has to make a triple play in the debate if he hopes to be the top Not Romney in South Carolina, a task on which his hopes depend. He bested both Gingrich and Perry in Iowa and New Hampshire, and must defeat them both again here if he wants to endure to be the surviving Romney alternative. But beating the other two Not Romneys isn’t enough. Santorum needs a clear second-place finish to Romney, and so must derail Paul.

Here’s the Santorum triple play for tonight: disqualify Paul as a protest vote, explain why he would be a better Not Romney than Gingrich and then explain why a Not Romney candidate is really necessary.

Santorum must, as he did in Iowa, convince voters here that Paul is an unacceptable protest vote. Santorum hit hard at Paul for undercutting the federal role on social issues, calling himself the “Jesus candidate” on Sunday as compared to others who “don’t understand” Washington’s role in keeping moral order. Santorum can also be expected to hit Paul hard on foreign policy in tonight’s debate and throughout the week.

Santorum can’t hit so hard with Gingrich. Santorum seemed to be hoping that Gingrich’s attacks on Romney’s record at Bain Capital would damage the frontrunner but also blow up the former speaker in the process, living Santorum set for a South Carolina upset. Instead, Romney got a sympathy boost and Gingrich firmed up his support. Remember that Gingrich’s appeal is more attitudinal than ideological. A lot of Republicans want an attack dog, and the Bain stuff has let Gingrich show off his bark.

Gingrich and Santorum have mostly abided by a non-aggression pact, but since Santorum’s Iowa surprise, that has been bound to eventually expire. Tonight, Santorum must start to draw contrasts with Gingrich or South Carolinians may go with the better-known candidate from the neighboring state.

It will be hard too, since that’s not where the energy is in the race. Gingrich and Romney have been spoiling for a fight since their last debate and, with air support from supportive super PACS, been torching each other. If Santorum looks marginal, he will be marginal in his vote count on Saturday.

Santorum’s last task is to prove the purpose of a Not Romney. He started his day today hitting back at Romney over his criticisms of Santorum’s earmarking and denouncing Romney as too liberal. But the increasing problem for Santorum may be that voters just don’t care about those conflicts. Way ahead in the polls (up 17 points since last month in the FOX Poll to an all-time high of 40 percent), Romney looks hard to beat.

And if Romney can’t be beat, what’s the point in voters giving up their favorite candidate to create a conservative consensus? And, with voters shocked by the toxicity of the Gingrich-Romney fight, do they really want to prolong this process?

Santorum argues that Romney would be weak against Obama and that nominating the former Massachusetts governor would be a mistake. Polls show Republican voters disagree. Santorum’s time is rapidly running out to make that case.


Huntsman Ends Most Unusual Presidential Quest

"To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy."

-- Aug. 18 Tweet from former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman mocking widely held Republican views espoused by his rivals.

It’s true that Jon Huntsman was inaccurately branded as a liberal by the Republican electorate. But he has no one to but himself to blame.

A candidacy that was launched on the pages of Politico and on the airwaves of MSNBC with unending and fawning speculation was not bound to be a darling of the Republican rank and file. But when Huntsman showed up with sneering disdain for the majority views of his party and a snarky attitude, any hope that he could win mainstream appeal in the GOP was gone.

When he, a child of privilege, mocked self-made Herman Cain’s tax plan as sounding like a pizza deal, one got a sense of how poor Huntsman’s political instincts were. When he said recently that he hoped the GOP would “return to Sanity” you got the notion that he had learned little from his setbacks.

The Mandarin riffs, the knowing jokes, the dirt-bike videos – it all added up to a niche candidacy that at most seemed like some kind of a personal grudge against Mitt Romney, whom Huntsman today will endorse.

Power Play assumes that the same outlets that launched Huntsman’s candidacy will take his surprise departure from the race as a signal of a Republican electorate not worthy of an urbane, moderate nominee. This is, of course, hooey.

It wasn’t that he was too liberal or too well traveled or too decent. It was that he wasn’t good at his job. Insulting your prospective voters is hardly the sign of a savvy politician.


Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as digital politics editor based in Washington, D.C.  Additionally, he authors the daily "Fox News First” political news note and hosts “Power Play,” a feature video series, on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on the network, including "The Kelly File," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace.”  He also provides expert political analysis for Fox News coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.