Santorum in his sweater vest could prove formidable Republican opponent to Barack Obama's king of cool

But setting aside the merits of the arguments, it seems that many of Santorum's detractors are a bit afraid of the man. He practices what he preaches – as evidenced by his seven children. His convictions and the obstinacy of his nature may make him a formidable opponent.

Santorum's values are rooted across the Atlantic. His grandfather left northern Italy during Benito Mussolini's rise for the promise of work in America.

Raised in public housing in an industrial steel town, Santorum proudly touts his blue-collar beginnings.

Serving as a US Senator from 1995 to 2007, Santorum was a member of the "Gang of Seven" that exposed improper congressional spending. He also successfully guided welfare reform legislation, served on the Armed Services Committee, and championed legislation banning late-term abortions.

He then lost his seat in an 18-point landslide when Democrats swept control of Congress.

This defeat would seem to make Santorum a weak candidate. That's why conventional wisdom among American media and political pundits is that Romney, long-considered inevitable even though he is having a difficult time wrapping up the nomination, would be the most electable general election candidate against President Obama. Rick Santorum would get crushed.

The same pundits judge that Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, is generally more moderate, particularly on social issues, and so would have greater appeal to voters in the middle. Santorum, they reckon, would scare off independents.

Convenient thinking, but there may be much more at play that will turn conventional wisdom upside down.

President Obama has started to gain traction with a message focused on how the middle class are being squeezed unfairly, and on income inequality.

Enter Romney, the perfect foil. Rich, elite. A blueblood who made millions breaking up companies and firing people. And a man who has been quoted saying "I'm not concerned about the poor" and "Corporations are people".

Ouch. The attack ads write themselves. Up against Obama, Mr Inevitable may be Mr Unelectable.

It reminds me of the 2004 election. Despite an upturn in approval after the capture of Saddam Hussein, President George W Bush was not very popular. Economic problems at home and costly conflicts overseas took their toll.

As the year wore on, well under 50 per cent of the electorate approved of the president. Yet Democrats nominated perhaps the only candidate Bush could have beaten, Senator John Kerry.

Kerry's weaknesses were a reverse mirror image of Bush's strengths. Even voters who didn't like the president admired the fact he believed in what he stood for, and that he was consistent in those beliefs. Voters came to believe Kerry stood for nothing and would change his position if it helped him politically.

His own spectacular declaration, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion (appropriation to fund troops) before I voted against it," reinforced that image.

While many thought the Democrats' initial front runner that year, Howard Dean, was a little crazy, and probably not a good general election candidate, the opposite might well have proved true. Dean was passionate about his beliefs; he was bold and consistent. Just like Bush. Bush would have lost his advantage as the guy with core convictions.

So it could prove that the better candidate for Republicans is actually Santorum, with his economic appeal to blue-collar voters – non-college-educated whites who have increasingly voted Democrat in recent decades.

In an economic address last week in Detroit, once the symbol of America's industrial dominance but now of its decline, Santorum spoke of cutting government spending, simplifying the tax code, and eliminating all taxes on manufacturing to spur middle-income job growth.

This will appeal to blue-collar workers – and their bosses. He has also said he supports unions in the private sector.

Democrats will try to use Santorum's family-focused, socially conservative stands to crucify him. But pocketbook issues will decide this election.

With Santorum as the Republican nominee, sweater vest and all, instead of Romney, President Obama would lose his foil, and his advantage as the sole candidate concerned about working Americans.

Mark McKinnon is a former Republican strategist who worked on the campaigns of George W Bush and John McCain. He is Global Vice Chair of Hill+Knowlton Strategies

World News Today

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