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GOP insiders reaching for panic button in face of Santorum surge and rise of social issues

Published: Monday, Feb. 20 2012 2:03 p.m. MST

Rick Santorum celebrates in Iowa. He called Romney "desperate" and vows to compete aggressively in Michigan.

Associated Press

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Mitt Romney's continuing weakness against Rick Santorum heading into Michigan has GOP strategists and pundits scrambling. Many fear that Santorum represents an impending disaster of Goldwater proportions, tipping dominoes all down the ticket in congressional and state races.

An anonymous high-ranking GOP senator told ABC's Jonathan Karl that if Romney does not win Michigan he (the senator) will publicly call for a new option.

“He’d be too damaged. If he can’t even win in Michigan, where his family is from, where he grew up,” the senator said, dismissing both Santorum and Gingrich as nonstarters.

Another "tippy top Republican" outlined a plan for Politico's Mike Allen, where a new candidate would enter several of the later primaries, sweep them and go to a contested convention as the presumptive savior.

In Indiana, Governor Mitch Daniels is facing an onslaught of calls for him to enter the race.

“The whispers have become shouts, the knocks on the door have become fist pounding," said Eric Holcomb, one of Daniels' key advisers, as quoted in Politico.

“Republicans are fretting the four dancing now can’t beat Obama in the fall, so their national talent search continues,” Holcomb said. But Holcomb also adds that resistance to a run from Daniels' family has not changed.

Over at Powerline, a prominent conservative group blog, division and frustration reigns. John Hinderaker is all in for Romney, and down on Santorum: "With Santorum launching one social issues bomb after another, there is no time to talk about the economy. Is this the Democratic Party’s dream, or what?"

Hinderaker's colleague Scott Johnson, meanwhile, wrote that Romney's weakness reflects on the candidate, not the electorate: "The inclination of Republican primary voters and caucus goers to support Gingrich or Santorum is not the sign of a character flaw or mental defect on their part. It is a sign that Romney is a problematic candidate for the party whose standard bearer he seeks to be."

The overriding concern with Santorum is that his preoccupation with social issues plays directly into the hands of the Obama campaign, which would prefer to focus on contraception to divert attention from debt, entitlement funding or economic malaise. Santorum heightened these concerns again over the weekend when he said that Obama’s is “not a theology based on the Bible.”

Even among Republicans who might be willing to concede November to Obama, fear is high of an epic collapse sparked by running a candidate who alienates the center. The specter of 1964 looms large. The Goldwater collapse that year resulted in supermajorities for Lyndon Johnson in both houses, which allowed Democrats to ram through a massive expansion of the welfare state.

In a sign that concerns are morphing into panic, Jennifer Rubin, a one woman pro-Romney band for months at the Washington Post, is now openly engaging these nuclear options, predicting that a Santorum candidacy would put control of the House at risk.

"Republicans should remember 2010. Republicans could well have had control of the Senate had they not nominated characters such as Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle and Ken Buck — fire-breathing Tea Partyers, who were unable to win in swing or blue states," Rubin wrote.

Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at eschulzke@desnews.com.

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