Rick Santorum edges toward the embarrassment zone

at 12:11 PM ET, 04/05/2012

Rick Santorum isn’t going to be the Republican presidential nominee.


Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum sits in a booth at Bob's Diner in Carnegie, Pa., Wednesday, April 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
That fact is impossible (or close to impossible) to dispute given Santorum’s delegate deficit to Mitt Romney and the rallying of the party behind the former Massachusetts governor.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Santorum can’t leave the 2012 campaign as a major winner. But in order to do so, he needs to avoid crossing from credible underdog to embarrassing windmill-charger in these final days (or weeks) of his campaign.

“If he drops out in the next few weeks — before April 24 and sooner is better — he goes out as the conservative warrior and lives to fight another day viewed as a political force,” said Ed Rollins, who managed Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann’s 2012 presidential campaign. “If he fights on and loses big including [his] home state he is damaged goods and joins the long list of losers to come out of this year’s car wreck.”

There are growing signs that Santorum is edging dangerously close to the embarrassment zone.

A PPP poll released on Wednesday night showed Romney leading Santorum by five points in Pennsylvania. A new Quinnipiac University poll in New York, which, like Pennsylvania, votes on April 24, showed Romney with a massive 54 percent to 21 percent lead over Santorum. Heck, even Donald Trump, the king of graceful exits (not), offered this piece of advice to Santorum via Twitter:

Santorum to date, has shown little interest in either ending his campaign or scaling back his rhetoric against Romney.

In Santorum’s speech following Tuesday’s primaries — where he was swept by Romney in D.C., Maryland and Wisconsin — he spoke in decidedly harsh terms about the former governor.

“The people of this country have stood up and followed because they’ve seen someone who has a clear positive vision,” said Santorum. “Someone whose convictions are also forged in steel, not on an Etch-A-Sketch.”

Those kind of comments aren’t going to go over very well in Romneyworld or in the broader Republican party that has clearly decided — look at the number of endorsers that have come out for Romney in the past two weeks — that this thing is over.

If Santorum continues on to and possibly through Pennsylvania — as his senior adviser John Brabender has signaled he will do — the Romney team (his campaign and Restore Our Future, his aligned super PAC) will deluge Santorum with negative ads that could badly stain his image in his own state. (And, as NBC’s invaluable “First Read” points out, another several weeks of Romney savaging Santorum on the airwaves will do little to aid the image rehabilitation the near-nominee needs to be doing.)

What Santorum needs to calculate — and perhaps he will do just that as he takes Easter weekend off from the campaign trail — is whether going on in the race will do him more damage than good.

He has a living, breathing example of crossing into the embarrassment zone in former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose insistence that rather than dropping out he plans to run a “big” convention strategy led to a collective eyeroll in the political community.

Unlike Gingrich, who, at 68, is at the tail end of his political career and almost certainly won’t run for anything again, Santorum is still quite young (he doesn’t turn 54 until May) and still could have another national race in him.

He also could follow the well-heeled path of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee who, after coming up short in the 2008 Republican race, built an empire as a conservative commentator.

Those future opportunities depend less on the when of Santorum’s exit than on the how, according to Ralph Reed, a longtime social conservative activist and strategist.

“The key is not when Santorum bows out, but what he says and does after,” said Reed. “If he strongly supports the nominee and actively campaigns for him — as Mitt did for McCain — he has a very bright future.”

Reed may well be right. But it’s hard to see how losing in his homestate in 19 days time wouldn’t take some of the shine off of Santorum going forward.

The key to leaving with honor in politics is to go out with a bang not a whimper. (This is also true in sports. Compare Sandy Koufax’s decision to leave at the top of his game to Steve Carlton who hung around just a little too long. It’s true Phillies fans. Admit it.)

Santorum needs to figure out how he wants to end this race. If he doesn’t do that soon, he will lose the ability to call it quits on his own terms. And that could hurt his political brand for some time to come.

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