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In presidential contest, it’s the individual wallet, stupid

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Late February gas prices at a Philadelphia Citgo station. (AP/Alex Brandon)

Last Saturday, GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum went seriously off his party’s message: “You hear now the media starting to say, oh well, looks like the economy is getting better,” he told supporters. “You know, the economy may be getting better and Republicans may lose their edge on that issue. Well, if that was the only issue in this race, that may or may not be the case, we don’t know.”

The message wasn’t that it’s not the economy, but rather that if the economy improves, things don’t look so hot for Republicans, who’ve been trying to tank it in order to make the case against the president’s re-election. Santorum, obviously, was making a play for the importance of his social issues agenda.

But there was a greater truth in his words: An improving economy helps Barack Obama, but it also helps Santorum in his bid against Mitt Romney, whose singular credential seems to be his business experience.

And Santorum’s right about something else: If the GOP chooses Romney, there’s a gift for the Dems in one singular and important way– Romney is seriously crippled when it comes to attacking the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Romney’s Massachusetts healthcare plan gone fed.

Certainly no one who cares about healthcare, or who depends on it, can be too comfortable with Romney. But is there a GOP alternative? It seems anyone with a stake in healthcare is left with few options other than the president.

And still, Santorum misses something else: For most people, the economy isn’t the ECONOMY, that giant abstraction that powers the country. The ECONOMY might indeed be inching upward, and might indeed be justifying much of Obama’s financial policies. But the economy of the individual wallet has a much different, more immediate impact.

No surprise then that a new CBS poll finds two new stats that speak directly to each other: Obama’s approval rating hit a record low 41 percent this week (a heckuva drop from 50 percent last month) while 54 percent of the electorate thinks the president can do something about gas prices.

That percentage will only increase as the weather warms and Americans want to tool around rather than just commute. And it’s already in the 70s in March in Chicago...

If Obama doesn’t figure it out very soon, neither Santorum’s social issues nor Romney’s healthcare gag order is going to matter much. In fact, Romney won’t be so crippled.

Americans will vote their wallet.

It’s that economy, stupid.

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