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Is Santorum the Jeremy Lin of politics?

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Rick Santorum, the defeated former senator from Pennsylvania, was given no chance when he announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. Rejected by the Republican establishment supporting Mitt Romney, he waged a lonely and underfunded grassroots effort that ultimately gave him the edge in the Iowa caucuses. On Feb. 7 he won all three primaries in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, and now finds himself tied with frontrunner Mitt Romney according to the latest Fox News poll.

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In clear contrast to the flip-flopping frontrunner Romney, no one who has heard Santorum speak doubts that this guy knows what he believes and doesn't shape his opinions according to polling results. On Saturday, Santorum delivered an electrifying speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, which contrasted sharply with Romney's weak effort to anoint himself as "severely conservative."

As the Fox News poll suggests, momentum is shifting to Santorum. He will receive new infusions of volunteers and contributions as he faces multiple opportunities to topple Romney from his frontrunner pedestal, starting with the Feb. 28 primary in Romney's home state of Michigan. Ten states hold primaries on March 6, "Super Tuesday," including Ohio. And on April 24, Republicans in Pennsylvania vote.

A Santorum victory in any of those states would give his campaign another boost of energy, volunteers and cash. And he could win them all.

Romney still has the most money, and has collected the most endorsements from people who thought him the probable nominee. He deployed that money effectively for negative advertising that overwhelmed Newt Gingrich in Florida.

But Romney has been unable to offer a positive reason why he should be the Republican nominee. And as Santorum observed, "Why should undecided voters support a candidate whose own party is unenthusiastic about him?"

All Romney can do now is unleash a new round of negative advertising on Santorum, but if he does he will risk labeling himself as a rich, one-note negative campaigner.

Many Democrats are enjoying the prospect of a protracted Republican primary campaign. They worry about Romney's ability to raise money from wealthy donors and his own vast personal resources not fully revealed in his one-year tax return. Most Democrats would prefer to see Santorum the nominee because of his lesser financial resources and more extreme and clear positions on social issues.

But they should be careful what they wish for. Don't forget that Democrats in 1980 thought Ronald Reagan was the weakest of the Republican candidates for president.

Santorum said in his CPAC speech that he views the campaign as not just about jobs and the economy, but also about "foundational principles." His political rise has coincided with new headline controversies over birth control, Planned Parenthood, and same-sex marriage.

Like Ron Paul, Rick Santorum is a candidate with an ideology, and it's very difficult to force an ideological candidate out of a race. Win or lose, they have something they want to say and prove. I'd be surprised if either Paul or Santorum dropped out before the Republican National Convention in August.

But unlike Paul, Santorum is not a mere role player. He has proven to be a contender, with the potential to be a star. His big week coincided with the meteoric rise of NBA phenomenon Jeremy Lin. If you don't know Jeremy Lin, check him out, and compare to Rick Santorum.

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Jan Ting is a professor of Law at Temple University's Beasley School of Law and former Assistant Commissioner for Refugees, Asylum and Parole, Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S. Department of Justice. Jan can be reached at janting@temple.edu.

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