Santorum's Sudden Rise; Consistent Conservatism Vaults Candidate from Dark Horse to White Knight

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Byline: Garrett Fahy and Shonda Werry, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The GOP nomination contest is reaching a moment of clarity. After his impressive South Carolina victory, Newt Gingrich has imploded. Ron Paul remains an unserious candidate. Mitt Romney appeared poised to claim the GOP nomination after his win in Florida's primary. As many noted before Tuesday's votes, the supposed wild card was Rick Santorum.

Belated victor of the Iowa caucuses, Mr. Santorum had put on strong debate performances and even outpolled President Obama in a recent head-to-head matchup. Yet many conservatives and establishment Republicans were dismissing him, considering him a dark-horse candidate at best. His sweep of Tuesday's contests in Colorado, Missouri and Mississippi demands that he be taken seriously. Furthermore, his success should not be a surprise, given that he is showing himself to be the only candidate with the background, policies and abilities to oppose Mr. Obama on his merits.

First, as evidenced most recently on Tuesday, Mr. Santorum is a winner in states that matter. He has a record of winning in an important swing state, Pennsylvania, on a conservative platform. Any GOP hopes of winning the presidency this fall hinge upon the Republican nominee winning purple states such as Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, Colorado and Florida.

Second, Mr. Santorum has been a mostly consistent small-government conservative for 20 years who can credibly propose conservative policies on taxes, health care, entitlement reform and energy that stand in stark contrast to the president's. In contrast, Mr. Romney lacks both a conservative track record and the ability to articulate a coherent conservative philosophy. His recent conversion to conservatism is admirable but questionable. Exhibit A: Mr. Romney's support for indexing the minimum wage to inflation when challenged on his claim to not be concerned for the very poor.

Third, Mr. Santorum is better equipped to make a compelling argument for smaller, conservative, constitutional government in a general election campaign. He has forcefully defended conservatism, has attacked big-government Romneycare during the debates and is the ideal candidate to challenge Mr. Obama on issues such as the administration's assault on religious freedom and the Catholic Church. …