Desperate Campaign Watch: Santorum's Bowling Challenge

The pointless, attention-grabbing throwdown -- like the one Rick Santorum issued to Mitt Romney -- is a common tactic of underdog campaigns.

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Lately, there's one place Rick Santorum can still feel like a winner: the bowling lanes. Over the weekend, he bowled a turkey -- three strikes in a row -- in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Since then, he's appeared at bowling alleys in Fond du Lac and La Crosse, and his campaign just released a schedule with two more bowling-lane appearances planned in the coming days. On Wednesday, Santorum issued a challenge to Mitt Romney: a "bowl-off" in advance of next week's Wisconsin primary.

What exactly would be at stake wasn't clear. It seemed like simultaneously a bid to underscore Santorum's blue-collar cultural credentials -- during his tour of Wisconsin, he's also been playing shuffleboard and drinking beer -- and an attempt to get the front-runner, who is increasingly ignoring his provocations, on Santorum's turf. According to the Washington Examiner, Santorum "studied Bowling 101 at Penn State University, has shot a high game of 241 (out of 300) and opened one recent game with seven straight strikes" and owns his own bowling ball.

The outlandish challenge lobbed at the front-runner is a common tactic of desperate political underdogs trying to get their rivals to engage with them. The master of this sort of grandstanding gauntlet-throwing, of course, is Newt Gingrich. Over the course of the campaign, Gingrich has famously challenged Obama to a series of Lincoln-Douglas debates; challenged each of his GOP rivals to the same -- two of them, Herman Cain and Jon Huntsman, actually took him up on it; and challenged Romney to debates over his campaign commercials (December) and gas prices (earlier this month). In addition to the standard debate challenger's goal of drawing his opponent onstage, in the case of Gingrich, whose debating skill helped propel his campaign, it was a way to remind voters of what many considered his greatest strength.

Santorum's challenge fits in that category, too, and not just because he's apparently a good bowler. The more attention he calls to his profile as the grandson of a Midwestern immigrant steelworker, the more he highlights the distance with Romney's potentially alienating life of outlandish privilege (see also: car elevator).

But Santorum might want to be careful: Romney, though he's consistently ignored these sorts of challenges, is a bit of a bowler himself. Two years ago, Romney held a bowling fundraiser at Lucky Strike Lanes in D.C. There are photos, on an unofficial Romney Facebook page, of him wearing a bright-blue bowling shirt over his crisp white dress shirt and jeans. And on his very first throw, according news accounts at the time, Romney bowled a strike.

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Mitt Romney, right, joins Sen. Scott Brown for a bowling-themed fundraiser in Washington in 2010. Courtesy Mitt Romney Central

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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