WASHINGTON — Iowa front-runners Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have a little problem. Both are too nice to be mean to each other.
Who can throw the first punch in a tight race growing tighter?
This is why God made Newt Gingrich. The formerly self-anointed “nice guy,” the one who wasn't going to go negative, has flip-flopped on protocol. Insisting that he lost Iowa to these lesser mortals because of Romney's negative ads, he has declared that he'll no longer make nice.
There is method to Gingrich's madness. In fact, though Romney spent more on ads, the most damaging ones for Gingrich came from Ron Paul's campaign, which accused the former speaker of serial hypocrisy. But Gingrich has focused his anger and bitterness on the candidate he deems the greatest threat to his own candidacy. The battle for votes between Santorum and Romney, neither of whom wants to insult the other, most likely will be fought on the front lines of Gingrich's own internal war.
Whether Santorum is a real threat to Romney, meanwhile, is a matter of small debate. The obvious answer is: Not really. Unquestionably Santorum appeals to social conservatives who don't have to guess at his sincerity. No one on the planet this side of the pope has walked the walk as Santorum has. But in a general election, his appeal weakens.
Even in Iowa, where caucus-goers tied Santorum with Romney, polls show that voters believe Romney has a better chance of winning the national election. Romney continues to lead by a healthy margin in New Hampshire. A new WMUR/University of New Hampshire poll found that 44 percent of those surveyed said they most likely would vote for Romney.
Santorum's sudden rise as a potential favorite is only sudden if you weren't watching Iowa the past year or so. The former senator from Pennsylvania has been all but carpooling as he visited all 99 counties. For his trouble, he was rewarded. But doing well among conservative, white Christians does not a national trend portend.