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Could Operation Hilarity Backfire?

There’s been a lot of chatter in the final day or two before the Michigan primary about the possible impact of Democrats crossing over to vote for Rick Santorum at the polls today, which are open to all comers. The Daily Kos has been urging Michigan liberals to make the move as part of “Operation Hilarity,” a mischievous endeavor to humiliate Mitt Romney in his native state. Santorum joined in yesterday with his own robocalls to Democratic voters, urging them to vote for him as a way to punish Romney for having opposed the auto bailout but approved the Wall Street one. As Jon Chait noted this morning, this will set up a spin war should Santorum beat Romney or win a close-second moral victory—Romney will argue that Santorum was helped by the Kos trouble-makers, while Santorum will claim it was blue-collar Macomb County Democrats who genuinely can’t stand Romney. (And he’ll have some support on that—a PPP poll found that 55 percent of Democrats saying they’d vote for Santorum were sincere, while 40 percent said they were doing so only to mess with the Republicans.)

What few have been asking, though, is whether Operation Hilarity is as strategically surefire for the Democrats as its plotters make out. No question, it would be delightful for Democrats to watch Romney suffering a loss on his home turf after having outspent Santorum 2-1 in the state. But what if Romney’s humiliation is too severe? What if, despite all the claims by Karl Rove et al that it is too late for a white knight to ride to the rescue, the Republican freakout after a Romney loss in Michigan is so boundless that someone—Mitch Daniels?—is prompted to jump in after all? Yes, yes, I know—a late entrant would face all manner of hurdles, and some of the glow would fade once the candidate’s inevitable imperfections, both ideological and stylistic, became evident. But make no mistake—a white knight riding in at this point, with the party so deeply beleaguered and demoralized, would be met with huzzahs, from the establishment and rank and file alike, that would make Peter O’Toole’s reception by the rebellious Arab tribes look lackluster by comparison.

Unlikely, I realize. But not totally out of the question. If Operation Hilarity fails in its goal to crown Santorum tonight, Democrats can comfort themselves with the thought that a wounded Romney tripping to a narrow, dispiriting victory may in the end be better for the Democrats’ 2012 prospects than an outright debacle for him. But that’s just my armchair conjecture. What do you all think?

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis