Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Inside view: How Santorum won in Colorado

Posted By on Wed, Feb 8, 2012 at 3:20 PM

It was, as Bulwer-Lytton might have written, a dark and stormy night when I pulled into the Coronado High School parking lot early Tuesday night to attend the Republican caucuses. Having publicly admitted that I was an accidental Gopster, an opportunistic lib’rul among principled conservatives, I didn’t expect to be welcomed with open arms.

Former state Sen. MaryAnne Tebedo had thrown down the gauntlet in an e-mail the day before.

“Dear John,” she wrote “thank you for reminding me about the caucuses tomorrow evening. Sorry you did not know enough about your party to know about your precinct number. If all liberals are as uninformed as you, few of you will attend the caucuses, which are, by the way, not events for rock climbing apparatus, food stands, or free pizza, but an events for serious Americans to begin, in Colorado, their involvement in the important political process for electing our representatives in our American Republic. Please try to find a Democrat caucus and do your thing there. And please, get off the Republican rolls. While you have some interesting ideas for debate, you are really worse than a RINO.”

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In such bitter weather, I didn’t expect much of a turnout — and was I ever wrong. The parking lot was full, as hundreds of caucusgoers braved the wind and blowing snow and streamed into Coronado’s dispiriting halls, where overhead fluorescents cast their baleful light.

I asked someone where Precinct 110 was caucusing.

“You’re in the wrong building, John,” she said briskly. “You should be with your Democrat liberal friends.”

The room was full to overflowing, as 45 registered Republicans from precinct 110 crowded into a classroom.
Party activist/precinct chair Brad Collins, resplendent in a dark suit, American flag tie, and American flag pin started the meeting at exactly 7 p.m.

First item on the agenda: the presidential straw poll.

Each of us had a preprinted ballot containing seven names, which had been prepared before Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Jon Huntsman had dropped out. Collins encouraged attendees to vote for one of the remaining four (Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, or Rick Santorum) rather than wasting a vote on a non-candidate. He then opened the floor to speakers.

It didn’t look like a Romney crowd — older, shabbier, a little careworn. It didn’t look like a Gingrich room either — these were hardworking folks who hadn’t spent their lives divorcing spouses and cashing million-dollar checks from lobbying clients. Maybe Ron Paul? There were a dozen younger attendees. Santorum?

Half a dozen people rose to support the former Pennsylvania senator.

“Rick Santorum can take it to the next level,” said one middle-aged man.

“Obama is just waiting for Romney,” said an older woman. “If he gets Santorum, boom! He won’t know what to do.”

“The future of this country hinges on the family, the traditional family-and Rick Santorum understands that. If he can budget for his family, then he can budget for his country.”

Other caucusgoers cast their lot with Romney. They seemed more polished, more sure of their facts (even when their facts weren’t true), and somewhat puzzled by the sudden flowering of Santorum supporters.

“I know Gov. Romney,” said a well-dressed woman who was serving as caucus Secretary, “and he’s a businessman, which we really need to run the country, and he’s very, very conservative.”

No one stood up to support Gingrich or Ron Paul.

Time to vote. We were seated classroom style, in those plywood chairs with writing arms that plagued us all as adolescents, so it was easy to peek at your neighbors’ ballots. All Santorum.

Our precinct mirrored El Paso County, where Santorum won a clear majority, cementing his statewide victory. Romney may have won Colorado with 60 percent of the vote in 2008, but there’s a new sheriff in town.

Santorum’s victory in the straw poll was stunning … but it may not mean much.

That’s because the straw poll isn’t binding. Delegates to the state convention aren’t obliged to support the candidate chosen thereby, and you can bet that the party machinery is already making sure that Santorum’s apparent home run turns into a strikeout.

Look, for example, at the list of local elected officials and leaders who have endorsed Romney. It’s a lineup as powerful as the 1927 Yankees, one which includes Bill Hybl, Dan May, John Suthers, Kyle Hybl, and Phil Anschutz, as well as Wayne Williams, Mark Waller, Bob Gardner and Larry Liston.

But who knows? Last night’s caucusgoers seemed to come from the deep wellsprings of the Republican party, the dissatisfied majority who would like to see someone who mirrors their lives, hopes, and beliefs. Their verdict was clear: that someone ain’t Mitt.

The often-scorned Santorum may be that man. Like Bill Clinton, he’s learned from defeat as well as victory. Like Barack Obama, he appeals to a rank and file that doesn’t much like their anointed leader. And like both of them, he’s young, energetic, and far less robotic than his older opponent.

So we’ve got a horse race, folks, and the power brokers may have to reprogram RoboMitt to deal with the new reality.

And as for me? I walked out in the cold determined to change my registration and hang out with my liberal friends.

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