How Santorum's Surge Is Changing The 2012 Race

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Read Dan Balz' Washington Post piece "Romney and the Tale of Two CPAC Speeches."

GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum swept caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado and the Missouri primary, gaining considerable ground on Mitt Romney's primary lead. NPR's Ken Rudin and Dan Balz, of the Washington Post, recap the week in politics.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Another new leader in the GOP pack. Paul's Pine Tree State supporters say: We was robbed. And Romney bows to the base. It's Wednesday and time for a...

MITT ROMNEY: ...severely conservative...

CONAN: ...edition of the Political Junkie.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad: Where's the beef?

SENATOR BARRY GOLDWATER: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

SENATOR LLOYD BENTSEN: Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

SARAH PALIN: Lipstick.

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: Oops.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: But I'm the decider.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAM)

CONAN: Every Wednesday, Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins us to recap the week in politics. Mitt Romney takes the CPAC straw poll and a narrow win in the Maine caucuses. But Santorum still surges in national polls. Michigan shapes up as a two-man race. The National Review tells Gingrich: Get out of the way. The president's numbers rise on better economic tides and House Republicans decline another death match on the payroll tax cut.

In a few minutes we'll speak with Washington Post national political correspondent Dan Balz about the Mitt Romney CPAC evolution. Later in the program, China's vice president goes back to Muscatine, Iowa. Which foreign leader does your town claim as one its own? Email us now: talk@npr.org.

But, first, Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins us here in Studio 3A. And we began as usual with a trivia question. Hey, Ken.

KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Hi, Neal. OK, well, through, OK, through eight presidential contests, Rick Santorum has won a total of just one primary.

CONAN: The others were caucuses.

RUDIN: That's true. But he only won one primary. Now, also, through eight - now, in history, who was the last presidential candidate from Pennsylvania to win just one primary?

CONAN: So if you think you know the answer to this week's trivia question, the last major party presidential candidate...

RUDIN: Doesn't matter.

CONAN: All right. To win one primary...

RUDIN: Just one.

CONAN: Has to be from Pennsylvania, though, email us: talk@npr.org. You can call 800-989-8255. The winner, of course, gets a fabulous Political Junkie no-prize T-shirt. And, Ken, when we can, we begin with actual votes: Maine.

RUDIN: Well, it wasn't actual votes; it was actual vote. Not many people showed up in Maine. It was the caucuses that lasted for a week. And it's interesting. It seems like the Republican establishment declared a winner before all the votes were cast. And the reason I'm saying that is that 80 - only 83 percent of the towns have had caucuses. Some delayed them because of weather, so they postponed them.

Some reported early, as early as February 7th, and they weren't counted. But of those who - of the votes that counted - and this is a nonbinding straw poll, it has nothing to do with national delegates yet - but Mitt Romney got 39 percent of the vote. 2,190 votes to 1,996 votes for Ron Paul; 36 percent. And Ron Paul says that, you know, you're declaring a winner before the votes were cast. It's not a really fair judgment.

CONAN: And...

RUDIN: I'll tell you one thing, it's one that Mitt Romney desperately needed, having lost last Tuesday's contests in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri.

CONAN: And maybe one Ron Paul desperately needed, too, because he hasn't won anywhere yet. But nevertheless, his supporters say this was not merely an oversight, that this was a setup job. This was stolen.

RUDIN: Well, you know, some people even said that - implied that during the Iowa caucuses because initially that night the state party leaders said that Mitt Romney won the Iowa caucuses. Then shortly later they backtracked and said, well, we don't know who won the caucuses. And ultimately Rick Santorum won it by 34 votes. So, but, again, I think there's something about the caucus system. We also had problems with the counting in Nevada as well.

CONAN: And Iowa, of course.

RUDIN: And Iowa, yeah. Iowa, Nevada and now Maine. And you remember the Maine. So, you know, something - for states that really want to be first, one would think they would get their act together.

CONAN: In the meantime, there was another election of sorts that the straw poll at the CPAC conference held annually here in Washington, D.C., Mitt Romney won last year. He won this year, too.

RUDIN: He did. Well, actually, he didn't win last year. Ron Paul had won it two years in a row.

CONAN: I apologize.

RUDIN: But Mitt Romney had won it three years in a row, 2007, '08 and '09. And I think, matter of fact, when he won it in 2008, he had already dropped out of the race three days prior. So, I mean, this is the Conservative Political Action Conference. These are the true conservatives. Who knows how scientific - and it's not scientific. I think one year Rudy Giuliani won it. And you know how conservatives love Rudy Giuliani. But...

CONAN: Absolutely. The, uh...

RUDIN: Exactly. But, anyway, again, at a time when Mitt Romney could - take anything he can get, CPAC and Maine are on his list.

CONAN: Meantime, despite those two stumbling blocks to his surge, Rick Santorum is now at the top or near the top, tied statistically with Mitt Romney for the lead in a lot of national polls.

RUDIN: And, now, somebody needs to explain this to me because I don't understand it. I mean, I think, you know, our roles should not be predicting what's going to happen, just lay back and just, you know, enjoy what's going on here because it's just beyond me. Rick Santorum was in single digits for the longest time in national numbers. He was also - always seen as an afterthought.

When Newt Gingrich overwhelmingly won the South Carolina primary on January 21st, Gingrich and his people said, look, Santorum should get out of the race. He has no chance of, you know, winning this nomination.

CONAN: Being the conservative alternative.

RUDIN: To Mitt Romney. And now here he is. He wins Colorado, Minnesota and a beauty contest in Missouri, and suddenly he's a national Republican frontrunner. I don't know if it says more about Rick Santorum or the glaring weaknesses, the continuing weaknesses of Mitt Romney among conservatives.

CONAN: We're going to talk more about that in a few minutes with Dan Balz of The Washington Post. But in the meantime we have some people on the line who think they know the answer to this week's trivia question. And that is, the last presidential candidate from the state of Pennsylvania to win just one presidential primary.

RUDIN: Or at least through eight contests, anyway. Yeah.

CONAN: 800-989-8255 if you'd like to try for the T-shirt. Or give us an email: talk@npr.org. And let's see if we can start with Tim. And Tim's with us from Albemarle in North Carolina.

TIM: Was it Bill Scranton?

CONAN: Bill Scranton, the senator from Pennsylvania.

RUDIN: The former governor of Pennsylvania.

CONAN: Former governor. Right.

RUDIN: Actually, what Bill Scranton did in 1964, he entered the race at the convention. He entered the race after all the primaries were over, after Barry Goldwater basically disposed of Nelson Rockefeller. Scranton got in the race when the primaries were over.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Tim. Let's see if go next - this is Dee Ann(ph). Dee Ann with us from Lawrence, Kansas. Dee Ann, you there?

DEE ANN: I'm here.

CONAN: So, what's your guess? Who's the...

DEE ANN: I think it's Senator John Kerry.

RUDIN: Well, the only connection I can come up with Pennsylvania is that his wife is Teresa Heinz, whose late husband was John Heinz, the senator from Pennsylvania. But John Kerry is not from Pennsylvania.

DEE ANN: Thank you. Talk to you next week.

CONAN: Thanks very much. And won more than one primary, as I recall. But any case, Sherry's(ph) on the line calling us from South Fork in North Carolina.

SHERRY: Is it Hugh Scott?

RUDIN: Hugh Scott, the former Senate minority leader from Pennsylvania who, as you well know, was first elected in 1958 and retired in 1976. Why do I know that? But he never ran for president.

SHERRY: OK. Nice try.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Nice try, though. Let's see if we go to Rob. And Rob's with us from Frederick, Maryland. Not too far from the Pennsylvania border.

ROB: That's correct. And I'm going to take a long shot and say James Buchanan.

CONAN: Wow. Delving back in history.

RUDIN: Yeah. I don't think there were presidential primaries back then. But I like to think that there were buttons back then, but, no, there were no primaries back then.

CONAN: Nice try, though.

ROB: That's how much I know about presidential elections.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: All right, thanks very much.

RUDIN: I like that.

CONAN: No, we like the historical touch though. That's very good. One more. Let's go to Brian(ph). Brian with us from Wilmington, North Carolina.

BRIAN: Yes. I was going to guess Senator Heinz.

RUDIN: John Heinz, who I just mentioned before, never ran for president.

BRIAN: OK.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Fifty-seven ways he didn't run for president.

RUDIN: Yeah. He got himself into a pickle. I know that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Brian's(ph) on the line from St. George in Utah.

BRIAN: Is it Winfield Hancock?

RUDIN: Well, again, Winnfield Hancock, you know, during the 18-, I guess 1850s, 1860s, there were no presidential primaries back then. The primaries really began in 1912.

BRIAN: Ah.

CONAN: Well, that's a hint, but not much of one. In any case, Brian, thanks very much for the phone call. If you think you know the answer - we've been through a few - 800-989-8255. We're running out of time, though. In the meantime, Ken, we have - remember that law that Congress just passed on insider trading? Members of Congress can't do that anymore. Well, all of a sudden, one of the senior members of the leadership on the Republican side seems to be caught up in this.

RUDIN: Well, the Office of Congressional Ethics announced this week that Spencer Bachus, who's been in Congress, from Alabama, since 1992. He says - you see, the thing is, he's the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, and the thought of him being accused of insider trading, they say that he made a lot of money during the financial crisis of 2008 betting on stocks on insider information that he had as leadership of the Congress.

So he denies everything, but there will be an ethics investigation into Bachus's dealings.

CONAN: And in the meantime we also have in a Senate race, the Club for Growth, the sponsors of the no tax pledge, well, they are endorsing a rival of Senator Dick Lugar in Indiana.

RUDIN: Right. That's Richard Mourdock, the state treasurer. The Club for Growth opposition to Lugar is not a surprise. Lugar has broken with the Republican Party on some issues, not all. But they say that he's just an unreliable conservative. He votes for tax increases. And the ultimate thing is that last week he voted against a permanent ban on earmarks. And that, of course, is a no-no for the Club for Growth.

What's interesting, the chairman of the Club for Growth is Chris Chocola, the former congressman, who was beaten by Joe Donnelly. And Joe Donnelly will be the Democratic nominee for the Senate in Indiana against the winner of the Lugar-Mourdock primary on May 8th.

CONAN: And you'd think that...

RUDIN: I think that was interesting. I don't know if that's interesting to you, but it seemed interesting to me.

CONAN: Well, some might suspect that Richard Lugar, the longtime incumbent would be a more formidable rival than a relative newcomer.

RUDIN: Well, there's two ways of looking at it. Conservatives don't feel, you know - but, look, he has 10 times as much money as Mourdock, he's well liked in the state, been around since 1977, the senior Republican in the Senate. But the conservatives just don't like him, except it's going to be hard to beat Lugar with all the money he has and the longtime support of regular voters.

CONAN: In the meantime, we also mentioned that Newt Gingrich, when he was up in the polls, called for Rick Santorum to get out of the race this week. The National Review said, Newt, look where the polls are today - say bye bye.

RUDIN: Isn't that something? Of course, you know, it's too soon to write Newt Gingrich off. There's still March 6th, Super Tuesday, where he's campaigning heavily in Ohio, Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, states like that.

CONAN: In the meantime, let's see if we get one more caller on to try for this week's trivia question. This is Tom. Tom with us, on the line from Anchorage.

TOM: Yeah, hi. I'm calling you in representing Occupy Anchorage. My guess is David L. Lawrence.

RUDIN: David L. Lawrence, who was a governor of Pennsylvania, on - a big guy behind the John Kennedy nomination in 1960, David Lawrence never ran for president.

TOM: Ah.

CONAN: Nice try though.

TOM: I remember him at the conventions getting votes.

RUDIN: He was there, but there were no primaries - he didn't run in a primary.

CONAN: Thanks, Tom. Let's see - let's try to squeeze in one more. Let's give away this T-shirt. Kit's on the line from Franklin in Michigan - or Minnesota maybe.

KIT: It's actually Franklin, Massachusetts, and my guess is Milton Shapp.

RUDIN: Milton Shapp did run for president in 1976, tried for the Democratic nomination. He dropped out before the primaries. The answer to the question...

CONAN: All right, Kit, thanks very much.

RUDIN: The answer, Neal...

CONAN: Go ahead.

RUDIN: Newt Gingrich.

CONAN: Newt Gingrich?

RUDIN: He was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Tricky question, but he did win the South Carolina primary.

CONAN: Tricky question.

RUDIN: I win a T-shirt.

CONAN: You win the T-shirt again, but you knew the answer. After a short break, Dan Balz joins us to talk about Mitt Romney, who's flacking his conservative credentials. And 60 percent of the Republicans say they'd like to think about somebody else. TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

It's Wednesday. Political Junkie day. Ken Rudin is with us here in the studio in Washington. And, Ken, anybody win the ScuttleButton puzzle last week?

RUDIN: Yes. And thank goodness. Because at least we can give away at least one T-shirt. The winner was Makayla Talshir of Prospect Park, Pennsylvania. The buttons were - there was a Bill Clinton button. There was an Abzug button. And there was a Chick Hearn button. So, if you get Bill Clinton, Abzug and Chick Hearn, you have Bill Belichick.

CONAN: Ooh, the losing coach in this week's Super Bowl.

RUDIN: Oh, did they lose?

CONAN: Yeah, I think they did lose.

RUDIN: Oh, so sorry.

CONAN: Yeah. Anyway, activists from around the country gathered in Washington, D.C. hotel this past weekend for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC, as it's known. Four years ago, presidential candidate Mitt Romney bowed out of the race, ending his bid as the conservative alternative to John McCain. At last year's gathering, Romney spoke and used the word conservative just once. On Friday, a very different tone.

ROMNEY: My family, my faith, my businesses - I know conservatism because I have lived conservatism.

CONAN: And, conservatives, are you satisfied with the current field? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You could also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now from a studio at The Washington Post, where he's a national political correspondent, is Dan Balz. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

DAN BALZ: Thank you. Nice to be here.

CONAN: And we notice that distinctive number of - change in the number of the uses of the word conservative and conservatism from a column you wrote in The Washington Post. What do you attribute this change to?

BALZ: Well, as you suggested, he's having trouble winning over conservatives. And it's odd, you know. I compared the speech this year to the one he gave last year. Two dozen references this year to conservative or conservatism. Virtually nothing last year. Last year he talked mostly about President Obama. This year he talked much more about himself.

As I thought about it, it was almost as if he should've given these speeches in reverse order, which is to say last year was the year to nail down his, you know bona fides as a conservative in the race so that he didn't have to deal with it later on. So that by this time, he would presumably, in his own mind, have the nomination, if not in hand, in pretty good shape. And then he could begin to turn and focus on President Obama.

Instead, he focused on President Obama last year and has never been able to win over the conservative wing of the Republican Party. And, so, as a result of those three losses that he suffered to Rick Santorum a week ago, he had to come into the CPAC conference and try to describe why he is a real conservative and where those roots are planted.

CONAN: And he, as you suggest, tried from a year ago, to run as the putative frontrunner, the most likely nominee, Mr. Inevitable. And yet his ability to stay above the fray has been badly tarnished as he tripped up in South Carolina, as you mentioned, tripped up again by Rick Santorum in three races just a couple of weeks ago.

BALZ: Yes, the interesting thing - I mean, there are sort of two main storylines in this Republican race. One is, why can't Mitt Romney consolidate the party around his candidacy? I mean, if he is the candidate who would be the strongest in the general election, and that's certainly been his selling point in this race, why is he not able to convince more people of that? Why are conservatives still resistant to him? The second is, who among the non-Romneys can actually have the staying power to really challenge him for the nomination.

The first part has been interesting to watch, because as we have seen one after another after another of the non-Romneys rise and fall - whether it was, you know, Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry or Herman Cain or Newt Gingrich - what we've seen is that as they have fallen, their support has not gone to Mitt Romney. That support just simply stays fluid and attaches itself to the next sort of non-Romney of the moment - and that happens to be Rick Santorum today.

So the question is, is there something ultimately about that resistance to Romney that could deny him the nomination? And is Rick Santorum the candidate who might be able to do that? We don't know the answer to either of those questions. I think, still at this point, you would have to say that Romney is the likeliest person who would win the nomination. But the longer he struggles with it, the more questions there are.

And I think the longer he struggled with it, the more he has created some problems for himself for the general election that didn't exist three or six months ago.

CONAN: At the CPAC conference, Rick Santorum himself raised a stinging question - didn't mention Mr. Romney by name, but everybody knew who he was talking about.

RICK SANTORUM: We always talk about, well, how are we going to get the moderates? Why would an undecided voter vote for a candidate of a party who the party's not excited about?

CONAN: And that is the question. If Mr. Romney can't get conservatives, the base of the party, excited about him, well, then all that excitement gap, the enthusiasm gap we kept hearing about a few months ago, well, you look at all the polls, that's gone.

BALZ: That seems to be gone. Although - I mean, there's two schools of thought on this. One is that in the end, the Republican Party, and conservatives especially, so dislike President Obama that no matter who the nominee is, they will turn out, they will be energized. They will want to work to try to deny the president a second term.

The other theory is some of what we are seeing at this point, which is that there does seem to be lack of enthusiasm for this field. And any number of states' turnout has been lower this time than it was in 2008. And yet it is a competitive race. So, we don't quite yet know the answer to that. But if you're a Republican, there are some troublesome signs that they're beginning to see. And I think it's one of the reasons that people are worried about whether this will go on indefinitely.

And if does, will there be real damage? I mean, people point to the 2008 race between President Obama and Senator Clinton - now Secretary Clinton - as one in which a long fight did not seem to damage the Democratic Party in any way, or Barack Obama as a general election candidate. But one of the things we've seen so far this year, particularly with Governor Romney, is that his image has taken a beating.

And his, you know, his so-called unfavorables are higher than his favorables. More people dislike him today than like him, and that's a change. And that's a hard thing to overcome. I mean it's not impossible to overcome, but it's a burden that he didn't have to carry when we started these contests in January.

CONAN: Let's get Erin on the line. Erin's calling us from Boise.

ERIN: Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Erin, you're on the air. Go ahead.

ERIN: OK. Yeah. Santorum was here last night to kind of a packed high school gym. And I was surprised to see the numbers. I'm an independent, and nobody on the right even is slightly tempting other than Santorum. I kind of felt - I didn't realize I was maybe of the same mindset as of many people up here last night.

CONAN: Why do you find him attractive?

ERIN: Because he's not Romney. Romney just really is yucky and crooked. And there's nobody - he's just a decent guy. He's a decent, standup guy who I am willing to consider, because Obama hasn't really followed through like I thought he would.

CONAN: All right, Erin, thanks very much for the call. Ken?

RUDIN: Dan, I have a bunch of questions to ask. I'll just try to make it succinct. After the Florida primary, Romney seemed to do well with all the conservatives. All the doubts about him seemed to be - to go away. All the exit polls showed he did very well. Then when he lost those contests last Tuesday in Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, everybody said, well, Romney did poorly because he didn't spend heavily. He didn't attack Santorum.

So the question is, is the only way Romney's going to get the nomination is to be going on the attack constantly? 'Cause he does that very effectively. But what does that say about the party? And if he doesn't win, for example, in Michigan on February 28th, what's the rationale for his candidacy?

BALZ: Well, let me answer the first part first. You're right. In Florida and in New Hampshire, where he's had pretty good-sized victories, he seems to be able to pull the - at least a sizeable part of the party with him. The most-conservatives still are more resistant to him than people who describe themselves as somewhat conservative. But nonetheless, the Florida victory was a very impressive victory on his part.

But I think your question goes to the real issue. Is there a way for him to win this nomination without having to use, essentially, a negative campaign and with a considerable amount of help from the superPAC that's backing his candidacy, which has been even more negative in its attacks on whoever is his rival in a particular state. And I think the damage that he is, you know, incurring is a result of that.

The negativity that he's engaged in and that his allies have engaged in have given people a different sense of him, and they don't particularly like it. I mean, when we did a poll a few weeks ago, I mean, one of the things we found was that the more people heard from him over the course of January, the less they liked him. And at that point, the only thing that was helpful to him was that the more people heard from Newt Gingrich, the less they liked him, even worse.

And so you would say, OK, he was marginally better off than Gingrich, but that's not a good measure. If he loses Michigan, I think this will shake the Romney campaign right to the foundations. It does not mean he could not end up as the nominee. But I think it will force a reevaluation of his candidacy and his strategy, that they have not done up to this point. They have followed a pretty consistent playbook.

And with the exception of those races last week, which were a surprise, I think things have played out, roughly, according to how they might have expected, though they didn't understand all the twists and turns any better than anybody else did.

But by that, I mean, they knew Iowa was going to be tough. Their hope was to come into Iowa and perhaps do better than expected, which they obviously did. They narrowly lost it. On election night, it looked like they narrowly won it.

They went into New Hampshire, which was a firewall. They did very well. They went into South Carolina. They knew South Carolina would be difficult. And they sustained a loss there. Gingrich had a terrific week in South Carolina and beat them handily. But they always had Florida as a second firewall. And they were able to do that, and then they went to Nevada. And Nevada performed the way everybody expected it would.

And so, they got through those first five contests, I think, in the kind of shape that they might have expected. What they weren't prepared for was to lose three on the same night and, particularly in the great scheme of things, to lose Colorado.

And so, it has put them in a different place, and another loss in a place like Michigan, which is, you know, nominally a home state. He was born and raised there. He won it eight years ago against - I mean, four years ago against John McCain - excuse me. A defeat there would be very damaging to his candidacy, and they would have to really do some serious regrouping...

CONAN: One...

BALZ: ...but we don't know whether that's going to happen.

CONAN: One key to Romney's victory in Florida was that he buried the man he saw as his principal opponent, Newt Gingrich, under a bunch of negative advertising. And we're already seeing that in Michigan. This time, the Restore Our Future superPAC that supports Mitt Romney is taking fire at Rick Santorum.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Santorum voted to raise the debt limit five times and for billions in wasteful projects, including the Bridge to Nowhere. Santorum even voted to raise his own pay and joined Hillary Clinton to let convicted felons vote.

CONAN: Mitt Romney himself, the Romney campaign, is running as a sort of favorite son.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

ROMNEY: People here in Detroit are distressed. I want to make Michigan stronger and better. Michigan's been my home. And this is personal. I'm Mitt Romney, and I approve this message.

CONAN: And, well, Ken Rudin, as you're running that double-barreled campaign, this was a strategy - Santorum has got ads up in Michigan, too, but he's going to be seriously outspent.

RUDIN: He is absolutely. And here's another question, though, is the way to go after Rick Santorum, is it about earmarks? And, Dan Balz, this really - this question is to you. I mean, there are a lot of things that Rick Santorum has said about women, about reproductive rights. I mean, certainly, conservative views, and that's expected. But some of them are pretty, well, pretty out there. And yet you can't really have the Romney campaign criticizing Santorum because he - you're going to be criticizing from the left.

How does the establishment, the Republican establishment, which has been so vilified this cycle, how do they take on Santorum if they feel he's too conservative, too far right to win?

BALZ: It's a very good question, Ken, and we were talking about that here not more than an hour ago. The Romney campaign, as you suggest, is in a compromised position, trying to go after him as being too conservative because it plays to the notion that Romney is a moderate, and that you need a moderate rather than a real hardcore conservative. So, they're going at him from the left. I don't know whether that will work.

I mean, I think it's true that most voters in most states know very little about Rick Santorum. They've seen him in the debates. I think what they've seen most recently they like. As the caller from Idaho said, they see an authenticity there and a standup guy. But it is a tricky question as to what they actually do in going after him.

If he wins Michigan, then I think the issue becomes what kind of general election candidate would he be, and who in the party raises that in the way you just raised it? That there are many things that he has said or supported that may be so far out there that they're going to have a problem.

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CONAN: Dan Balz writes "The Take" column for The Washington Post and has Jackie Wilson...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: ...on his cellphone as his ringtone. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's get another caller on the line.

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BALZ: Sorry about that.

CONAN: Let's go to Jesse(ph). Jesse with us from Columbus.

JESSE: Hello.

CONAN: Go ahead, Jesse.

JESSE: Hi. Yeah. I'm from Columbus, Ohio, and I'm probably going to vote for Romney in our primary.

CONAN: And Romney why?

JESSE: I don't like the field right now. I really wish Chris Christie would have gotten into the race. I'm going to vote for Romney just because I think he's got more leadership skills than the other candidates. And I think he would be a better presidential candidate to bring the country together with Democrats and Republicans because that's really what we lack in government.

CONAN: Jesse, thanks very much for the call. Let's see - we go next to Doran(ph). Doran with us from Grand Rapids.

DORAN: Hi. Good afternoon.

CONAN: Hi.

DORAN: Hi. In answer to your question regarding is Romney conservative enough, I'll be honest with you. I'm not - I have always considered myself Republican. I guess I've been running more independent the last few years, but I've followed this election probably closer than anything I've ever done presidential-wise. But cutting to the chase, if Rick Santorum would win the Republican nomination, I would consider to vote - the Republican Party is still conservative. I'm not really big on Romney.

And I'd be honest with you. This is going to sound like a real flip-flopper, but, you know, if Rick Santorum doesn't run - is unable to run against President Obama, I'd be honest, I'm inclined to trust President Obama more than what I see in the field right now, other than Rick Santorum. It sounds like I'm on both ends of the spectrum, but I just - not to discount Ron Paul, but I am not big on Romney and not big on Gingrich.

CONAN: Dan Balz, that's an interesting middle there.

BALZ: That is a very interesting comment. And I think it - I mean, the way I would interpret that is that it goes much more to doubts about Mitt Romney than necessarily an affirmation about Rick Santorum. Obviously, the caller finds things in Santorum that he likes, but I think what he was really saying is that it's Mitt Romney that he's quite uncomfortable with. And so, he would - he's looking around.

And I think that that is, right now, the strongest selling point that Rick Santorum has. And the question is, can he convert that, you know, in some sense, he's a placeholder right now for the discontent with Mitt Romney. And I think, to be successful, he has to convert that into real support for himself.

CONAN: He's running that ad in Michigan. We mentioned it's called the so-called "Rombo" ad, which has an actor portraying Mitt Romney with a machine gun that spews out mud.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This time, Romney is firing his mud at Rick Santorum. Romney and his superPAC have spent a staggering 20 million brutally attacking fellow Republicans. Why? Because Romney is trying to hide from his big-government Romneycare.

CONAN: And firing at a cutout of Rick Santorum and missing, we should say. Anyway, it's going to be a fascinating race. It looks like a two-person race in Michigan. Newt Gingrich does not look like he's going to be participating there. Ron Paul also focusing elsewhere. So, that's going to be fascinating. Dan Balz, thanks very much for your time today.

BALZ: You're welcome. Thanks very much for having me.

CONAN: Dan Balz, of The Washington Post, taking us higher and higher.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Ken Rudin, thanks very much, as always, for your time.

RUDIN: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: He'll be back next week with another edition of The Political Junkie. Coming up next, the foreign leader who has a tie to your town. Email talk@npr.org. TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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