We have been saying for weeks that this could happen. A late break by Santorum could erase the plausibility question make Rick the conservative alternative to Mitt. Byron York thinks that may be just what is happening.

There was one candidate that nearly all of them wanted to support, and that was Rick Santorum. But they had a problem with Santorum, too. That problem wasn’t about knowledge, or experience, or personal history. No, the problem with Santorum was always electability. Many, many social conservatives said that they wanted to support Santorum but were troubled by his inability to rise about two or three percent support in the polls. If Santorum could just show that he could rise a bit higher, they said, then who knows how much support might come his way?

Now Santorum has done just that. A new CNN/Time poll has Santorum in third place in the Iowa race, with the support of 16 percent of those surveyed. That’s up dramatically from the last CNN/Time poll, in early December, which showed Santorum in sixth place, with the support of five percent of respondents.

If Santorum’s support really does stand at 16 percent — and there are always questions about the accuracy of any one poll — then there is a good chance Santorum will erase remaining doubts among Iowa social conservatives who are eager to support him but worried about electability. And if that happens, Santorum could rise quickly, taking support away from more problematic candidates. In the CNN/Time poll, Gingrich is at 14 percent, Perry 11 percent, and Bachmann nine percent. If those voters believe their own candidate is weakening and that Santorum is a viable alternative, they might well jump to Santorum. His current 16 percent support could increase considerably.

Beyond Iowa, Santorum has significant hurdles to getting the nomination. The biggest, and most reasonable, is the question “Can he beat Obama? He lost in Pennsylvania.”

But first things first. He needs to surprise in Iowa and make himself the ABM candidate (Anybody But Mitt). If he does, the scrutiny and attacks will be white hot and vicious. How he weathers the barrage will say a lot about he will handle Obama.

Again, first things first.

Go Rick.

(BTW, if this really happens, it is the official position of CMR, that my endorsement of a few weeks ago is what turned the tide for Rick and I expect a position in the administration. I’m thinking HHS.)