‘Not Romney’ Primary Rages On

‘Not Romney’ Primary Rages On; Obama’s Catholic Quandary

Can Gingrich Rebound from Santorum Sweep?

“It must be a lot more fun believing in something than campaigning for nothing.”

-- Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, celebrating with his supporters a second-place finish in the presidential straw poll held during Minnesota precinct caucuses.

Rick Santorum may not have won any delegates in his Tuesday night sweep of two straw polls and a non-binding primary, but the former Pennsylvania senator proved that his supporters were ready to march.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had hoped that his decisive win in South Carolina on Jan. 21 and endorsements from a slew of conservative figures had settled the subject of which conservative candidate would be the last standing against frontrunner Mitt Romney.

But with strong showings at polls taken during precinct caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado as well as during Missouri’s accidental primary (the state’s governor and legislature couldn’t agree on how to cancel it, so party leaders just neutered the event to avoid delegate sanctions), Santorum proved that his loyal band of supporters was big enough and active enough to make him a force in the delegate chase.

Gingrich fared miserably. He finished a distant third in potentially consequential Minnesota and Colorado. If the opinion of precinct delegates selected Tuesday reflects the final delegate allotments in May, Gingrich will get skunked. In Missouri, Gingrich didn’t even make the ballot. Yes , it didn’t count, but like a straw poll, it is a reflection of voter attitudes and enthusiasm. When Missouri actually starts its process next month, Gingrich could be on the short side of the state’s 52 delegates.

Conservatives have lingering doubts about Gingrich's character and his reliability as a standard bearer. Santorum, piggybacking on weeks of scorching attacks from the Romney campaign, has positioned himself as the steady, stable choice for voters who have strong predilections for steadiness and stability.

Since Gingrich’s second rebound carried him to victory in South Carolina, anxious conservatives have been fretting about Gingrich’s personal life and penchant for grandiosity – the allegations of his second wife, the Romney claims about his ethics record, the moon colony, etc.

The former speaker is looking ahead toward big states, Super Tuesday and the next round of debates in hopes that he can re-establish himself as Romney’s chief antagonist. But Santorum’s mastery on the caucus process has caused some problems.

Santorum, like Rep. Ron Paul, knows that a small army of loyal supporters willing to mobilize for a cause – libertarianism for the Paulistas and social issues for Santorumites – can have an outsized effect in a low-turnout caucus. What Santorum now hopes is that these caucus wins do for him what his victory in the identical straw poll in Iowa didn’t do: put him in contention when elections resume at the end of the month.

In that way, Gingrich and Romney suffer from the same problem: Acceptance is no substitute for enthusiasm.

Republicans overall appear willing to accept Romney as their nominee in the end and conservative Republicans appear willing to accept Gingrich as their standard bearer. But for either of those things to happen, people actually have to go vote for them.

Gingrich’s poor showing in all four caucus straw polls so far suggests that he’s got a problem with mobilizing activists. Who knows how Gingrich and Romney would have fared if Missouri’s election was for real, but unlike nearly 140,000 Santorum supporters their backers weren’t ready to come out in a purely symbolic vote.

The continuation of the Not Romney primary into another round – Pawlenty, Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich, Santorum, Gingrich again and now Santorum again -- is basically good news for Romney. As long as the right stays divided, Romney can still win.

But the lack of enthusiasm on display Tuesday means that if the right were to unite in the upcoming slew of primaries on Feb. 28, March 6 and March 13, Romney could face real trouble. It seems unlikely following Santorum’s straw-poll boost, but it’s something Romney has to watch out for.

More worrisome for Romney though is how he can get those conservatives marching for him in the general election. Both Romney and President Obama are betting that disdain for their likely opponent would be enough to mobilize their parties’ bases. But as powerful as negative enthusiasm is, it’s not enough if you don’t have the real thing.

Obama Picks a Losing Fight with Catholic Church

“The President is very interested in finding the appropriate balance between religious beliefs and convictions -- and he takes those very seriously -- and his commitment to making sure that women of all faiths have access to these important health care preventive services.”

-- White House Press Secretary Jay Carney answering a question about an uproar among religious groups over a new health care regulation requiring insurance plans to cover contraception, including so-called “emergency contraception” taken after intercourse, and sterilization.

The Obama White House and campaign are hustling to undo the damage done by an administration rule that would force Catholic institutions to provide birth control, a no-no under church doctrine, and even the “morning after pill,” which by Catholic teaching is no different from abortion.

The president has good reason to be worried.

In the 10 elections since modern exit polling started, Catholic voters have gone Republican five times and Democrat five times and in each case sided with the winner of the popular vote, usually by large margins.

Politicians and pundits spend a lot of time slicing and slivering the American electorate – swing state soccer moms, NASCAR dads, etc. – but if you want the swingingest group of president pickers of them all, stick with the 47 million members of the Roman Catholic Church, America’s largest Christian denomination.

They are heavily concentrated in swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Wisconsin and Florida and make up more than a quarter of the national electorate.

In 2008, Obama carried Catholic voters by 9 points – 2 points better than voters overall and 9 points better than protestant voters. Christian voters made up 81 percent of the electorate according to exit polls that year, but it was Obama’s strong showing among Catholics, combined with his 3-to-1 margins among Jews, members of other faiths and nonbelievers, that allowed the freshman Senator to become president. In 2004, Democrat John Kerry lost his fellow Catholics by 5 points to Methodist George W. Bush.

Catholic voters are far from monolithic. In surveys, about a third of self-described Catholics say that they aren’t pro-life and on the issue of birth control there is wide disagreement.

But while other Christian sects offer means by which congregants can seek to change church policies, Catholicism relies on the power of the Magisterium, the teaching authority of the pope and the bishops. Being a Catholic means accepting church teaching on matters moral, even when an individual disagrees. But it also means an absence of the political squabbles that constantly plague mainline protestant denominations.

In part because of this centralized decision-making authority, Catholics have been able to focus relentlessly on missions and evangelism. And that’s why so much of America’s social safety net, as well as our systems for higher education and health care, relies on Catholic institutions. It’s a trade-off many American Catholics are willing to make: a top-down institution but one that turns on a fire hose of good works in nearly every community in the United States.

The decision rendered by the Department of Health and Human Services endangers that flood.

It’s akin to the case when laws have required adoption agencies to place children with same-sex couples. Catholic charities are a big part of the adoption network in America, but cannot act in disagreement with the Magisterium so have in some cases been forced to close up shop.

So even Catholics who may be personally in disagreement with the church on certain positions understand the all-or-nothing proposition offered by their faith and have learned to live with it. When they see the government attempting to break the deal it is alarming for even non-orthodox members of the faith.

In the same way, the rule is disquieting to non-Catholics as well. Religious liberty alarm bells start ringing very loudly when the government tells a church that it must provide health insurance and then require that the insurance be constructed in a way antithetical to the church’s teachings.

Another problem with the new regulation is that it reminds all Americans about the mandatory nature of the president’s health law. While the president works hard to focus on the welfare aspect of the law, reminders of its compulsory components do nothing improve its unpopularity.

The administration is now trying to wriggle off the hook on the subject, saying that the rule will be under consideration for a year and will be sensitive to religious freedoms when eventually finalized. But climbing down won’t be so easy.

Democrats are emboldened by their victory in forcing a major breast-cancer charity, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, to resume funding for Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider. A chorus in Congress and across the country is now calling for Obama to stand firm on the insurance rules, despite the outcry.

The best Obama can likely hope for is to mumble-mouth the issue long enough that it dies down. The rule doesn’t go into effect until Jan. 20, 2013 – inauguration day – so Obama plans to be well past the wrath of Catholic voters before it flares up again.

But the Catholic clergy shows no sign of quieting down, leaving Obama facing the choice of either aggravating an indispensable demographic group or angering his political base. If he plays it wrong, either Ohio will fall out of reach in November or he will face the anger of liberal female voters and donors in the suburbs.

And Now, A Word From Charles

“They might have imagined being liberals and secularists that it will only effect a small minority of devout Catholics who themselves don't practice contraception. But in fact it offends everybody. Whatever your personal look at or view on contraception, it's assault on church and the good work it does. And it doesn't respect that a church isn't only what happens in prayer, it is also what happens when it deals with the sick and poor and the hungry, and it has to practice faith.”

-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”

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