Editor's note: Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for the Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "The Crusader: the Life and Times of Pat Buchanan," due out February 14.
Washington (CNN) -- Rick Santorum is on fire. On the same day that a new Fox News poll put him neck and neck with Mitt Romney for the Republican presidential nomination, he received a rapturous reception at the all-important Conservative Political Action Conference.
I had hoped to be in the hall when he delivered his speech, but I couldn't get in. The queue to see him stretched around the corridors of the Marriott for a quarter of a mile. It was peopled by an army of Young Republicans in their uniform of blue blazer and chinos, gelled hair, and Brooks Brothers tie. It looked like a casting call for "Wall Street."
Terrifying though the CPAC kids can be, they enjoy enormous power. These are the opinion formers within the Republican grass roots. When CPAC is over, they'll return home to Michigan and Arizona and tell their friends who they think is the most viable conservative candidate. I have no doubt that they will be pushing Santorum hard.
What I did see of Santorum's speech on the TV in the press room was an impressive slice of red-meat conservatism. It had two key messages. First, Mitt Romney can't win. "Why would undecided voters vote for a candidate who the party isn't excited about?" he asked, winning a big round of applause. Romney is too wet, too compromised by his liberal past to provide an exciting contrast with the president. Instead of doing what the establishment thinks is "politically reasonable" -- a strategy that didn't work out so well for John McCain in 2008 -- Santorum insisted that the GOP must stick up for "the policies and principles that made this country great" and run a real conservative in November.
The second part of Santorum's pitch is that he is that guy. Crucially, he doesn't just sound conservative -- he looks the part, too. He arrived on stage with members of his big family, who stood around him in a semicircle of wholesomeness: two sons in sweater vests, two sons in blazers, two daughters in dresses, and a loyal wife. There's a popular theory in political science that certain leaders are able to tap into latent "ethnosymbolism" -- the unconscious evocation of a nation's character through looks, clothes, mannerisms, etc. Santorum embodies the Republican Party in a way that is hard to articulate in words.
By contrast, Romney is dead behind the eyes. His speech was a good one, but it only highlighted his biggest weaknesses. He spent much of it stressing his conservative record as governor of Massachusetts, a stark reminder of how liberal he used to be. That he never mentioned "Romneycare" once was telling. Nor did he name Santorum or Newt Gingrich in his subtle jibes at the opposition -- a big mistake, given the highly personal nature of Santorum's earlier attacks. It came off a little wimpy.
Romney concluded by telling the audience that "I was a severely conservative governor." The awkwardness of that sentence -- which suggests cruelty, covering up for past heresies, and even a little sadomasochism -- summarizes how politically tone-deaf Romney is.
Whatever you think of his politics, there is no doubt that Santorum taps into the mood of his party better than Romney does. Barack Obama is looking less easy to beat.
Unemployment is falling, the president's approval rating is up, and he now leads Romney by ten points, according to a new Rasmussen tracking poll. Under those circumstances, a moderate is unlikely to exploit the wedge issues and motivate voters in the same way that a true conservative could. Relying on the anger of voters isn't enough to beat Obama: The Republican candidate needs to whip up and direct that anger with some boiling hot rhetoric.
And Rick Santorum is the angriest candidate around.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Timothy Stanley.