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Rick Santorum arrived at CPAC today, but he was everywhere at CPAC yesterday. As David Frum noted, there were no Romney stickers to be seen at CPAC yesterday, but Santorum stickers were everywhere. (With Gingrich stickers running a close second.) As he walked onto the stage, it was evident that he has a lot of support here. This is a religious, conservative crowd, and they loved him.

Santorum walked onto the stage with most of his family in tow, and was received with enthusiastic applause. As his family formed a tableau behind him, Santorum joked. “This is not the Von Trapp family,” he said. “We are not going to sing,” he added a beat later after waiting for the laughter to die down. That was a relief. But then, Rick Santorum started talking.

If Romney walks out on stage with his family arrayed behind him, then I’m going to assume Santorum’s started a meme to get under Newt’s skin some more. (Let’s see you drag your family out on stage, Newt — and all your baggage along with it.)

Rick Santorum - A Preacher ManAfter introducing his family, Santorum noted that his three-year-old daughter — whose illness cause him to take a short break from the campaign trail during the Florida primaries. Santorum assured the audience that his daughter was recuperating and doing well. That’s interesting, because a year ago Santorum said that health care reform would kill his young daughter — who was born with a genetic abnormality.

Now, I’m not going to suggest that health care reform is responsible for his daughter’s continued survival. The millions Rick Santorum earned by cashing in on his Washington insider status means that his little girl gets the best healthcare money can buy.

It’s also interesting, because Santorum — like a lot of conservatives — wants to repeal health care reform. Never mind that repealing health care reform might kill a lot more people. Never mind that repealing health care reform would strip Americans of a lot of protections that Republicans have no specific plans to replace or provide in some way that reflects their values. (Like prohibiting health insurance companies from denying coverage to children with pre-existing conditions.

It got even more interesting when Santorum moved on to conservative failure. No, not the decade of conservative failure I like to call the “Uh-Ohs”. The usual Republican line is “Conservatism never fails. It is only failed.” Santorum spun in differently, but basically echoed it. “Conservatism did not fail our country,” he said. “Conservatives failed conservatism.”

Well, he’s not entirely wrong, because for most of the last decade conservative had a lock on government, and the result was tremendous growth in the deficit and the size of government. (But not the economy.) And I suppose Santorum included himself when he said “conservatives failed conservatism,” because he was a major player in Washington’s inside game during that time.

The most interesting thing about Santorum was how little his speech focused on the economy. Yes, it got a mention, and he made sure to note that the Wall Street Journal called it “supply-side economics for the working man.” (Because that’s just what working people need, right?) He even got in a lick at Romney, by adding that his plan shows he “cares about the very poor, too.” Then he moved to the meat of the speech.

“This is not just about jobs, although it is about jobs,” Santorum said. “It’s about big things. Really big things. More than just the economy.” Those “really big things,” are basically everything that right wingers love, and that we’ve heard from Santorum before — contraception, climate change denialism, etc.

By the end of the speech, it was clear that Santorum’s “really big things” was really just one really big thing: the same old culture war that the right keeps fighting and keeps losing in places like California, Washington state, and in debacles like the Komen Foundation mess.

As he brought it on home, Santorum advised the crowd that the 2012 election is really about morality, not money. “We’re not going to win this election because the Republican candidate had the most money,” he said. “We’re going to face lopsided money advantages.” he said, apparently assuming president Obama would have more money. (President Obama must not be so sure, if his reluctant embrace of super PACs is any indication.)

But Santorum made it clear that his fight wasn’t with President Obama in this speech. The money comment was really a dig at Romney, whose coffers overflow with cash from secret super PAC donors. And Romney was the target of Santorum’s parting shot. Republicans, he said, aren’t going to win in 2012 with a candidate “who has supported the stepchild of Obamney care.”

Santorum and his supporters (and there are a lot of them at CPAC) may be making the mistake of thinking that Americans share their culture war concerns, but that seemed to be far from the minds of conservatives at CPAC, as Santorum left the stage to resounding applause. But the concerns of some pro-choice Republicans are hardly enough to sway the CPAC crowd.

Seeing Santorum’s reception at CPAC, it’s easy to think that maybe he really is their guy for 2012. After Santorum’s speech, I decided to visit the CPAC exhibit hall before grabbing lunch. When I walked in to the hall, I encountered a crowd of CPACers all trying to catch glimpse of someone, and some with smartphones raised to snap pictures over the heads of the crowd. It was the kind of crowd you might see orbiting around a celebrity — a C-List celebrity at best, judging from the size — but a celebrity nonetheless.

I gave up trying to see who had drawn this crowd and settled for taking a shot of the crowd.

People trying to get a shot of Santorum

Then the mini-throng parted just enough form me to see who is was all for. There, in the middle of it all, was Rick Santorum.

I went to lunch thinking Rick Santorum was the “rock star” at this year’s CPAC. After finishing lunch, I returned to find that Santorum was just the opening act.


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