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What Rick Santorum meant — and why he was right to drop out

at 03:26 PM ET, 04/10/2012

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum ended his presidential bid today, bringing to a close a campaign that succeeded beyond the expectations almost anyone — perhaps up to and including the candidate — had set for him.


U.S. conservative presidential candidate Rick Santorum announces he is suspending his bid to win the Republican nomination during a news conference in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania April 10, 2012. REUTERS/Mark Makela
By ending his campaign two weeks before the Pennsylvania primary, Santorum avoided what could have been an embarrassing defeat to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in his home state and preserved not only his raised profile within the party but his chances of running as a viable candidate in either 2016 or 2020.

“He began this campaign as an asterisk in the polls and he leaves having won over three million votes and 11 primaries or caucuses, the most by an insurgent conservative candidate since [Ronald] Reagan in 1976,” said Ralph Reed, a longtime social conservative activist. “My guess is we haven’t heard the last from Rick Santorum.”

Santorum’s decision came after a series of setbacks in recent weeks that made abundantly clear that while he retained a not inconsiderable following among conservatives within the party, his delegate deficit to Romney was simply insurmountable.

It also followed closely on the hospitalization of Santorum’s three-year old daughter, Bella, who suffers from a rare genetic disorder known as Trisomy 18. (Bella Santorum was released from the hospital early this morning.)

While much of the focus in the immediate aftermath of the announcement will focus on practical details — where will Santorum’s delegates go (it depends), what does former House Speaker Newt Gingrich do next (it doesn’t matter)— it’s equally important to take a step back and look at what the remarkable ride of Santorum meant to the race and what his success tells us about the state of the Republican party.

Santorum began the presidential race as an afterthought — at best. Having lost his 2006 reelection race by 18 points, the idea that Santorum could be a top-tier candidate in a presidential race less than six years later seemed farcical.

Throughout 2011, Santorum toiled at the margins of the contest. His level of perceived irrelevance was highlighted weekly as the crowd of candidates would gather for debate and Santorum would regularly be placed at the far ends of the stage.

Even while he was being ignored in the national conversation, Santorum embarked on what at the time seemed like a quaint yet antiquated strategy of visiting all 99 counties in Iowa, the first state to hold a 2012 vote.

As fall turned to winter and one-time conservative alternatives to Romney like Gingrich, businessman Herman Cain and Texas Gov. Rick Perry imploded, Santorum’s tortoise approach started to pay dividends.

In the final days before the Iowa’s caucuses, Santorum was clearly the momentum candidate. While Romney was initially announced as the winner of the caucuses, the Iowa GOP reversed itself more than two weeks later and acknowledged that Santorum had, in fact, received the most votes.

That moment was critical to the future course of the race. Had Santorum been declared the winner in Iowa on the night of the caucuses, it’s entirely possible that the race would have taken a far different course — with the former Pennsylvania senator emerging far earlier as the conservative alternative to Romney.

If Iowa was an unavoidable missed opportunity for Santorum, the Michigan primary, which, in retrospect, almost certainly decided the race, was a self-inflicted wound.

Santorum was riding high following a trio of wins in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri on Feb. 7 and polling suggested he was well positioned to beat Romney in the state where the former Massachusetts governor was born. Such a victory by Santorum would have turned whispers about whether Romney could get across the finish line into shouts and ensured a surge of momentum and money to the former Pennsylvania senator’s campaign.

At his moment of greatest opportunity, Santorum swung and missed. He veered far off message by refusing to back down from past comments that he “almost threw up” upon reading speech on the separation of church and state by then President John F. Kennedy and by referring to President Obama as a “snob”. Both comments drew an avalanche of negative headlines, forcing Santorum onto the defensive in the days leading up to the Michigan vote.

His defeat there on Feb. 28 followed by similar losses in Ohio on March 6 and Wisconsin on April 3, turned Santorum into a candidate without a viable path forward in the race.

Still, that Santorum had moments in this race where he could have emerged as a serious threat to Romney’s frontrunner status is a remarkable personal achievement and speaks to the powerful role that evangelical voters retain in the Republican nominating contest.

Those voters jumped from candidate to candidate over the past year before settling on Santorum but never did they consider signing on with Romney despite the fact that the former Massachusetts governor was the wire to wire frontrunner in the race.

Perhaps the most amazing statistic to come out of a race full of them is that Romney did not win a single primary or caucus where evangelicals comprised 50 percent or more of the electorate.

Santorum, like former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee before him, proved that a candidate who can unite — or come close to uniting — evangelicals can far overperform expectations in a Republican presidential primary. But, Santorum, again like Huckabee, failed to expand his base beyond social conservative and born again voters, ensuring that he would come up short of knocking off the establishment frontrunner.

In the end, Santorum’s candidacy proved the strength and, ultimately, the limits of running as the social conservative candidate. He went further and won more than anyone thought he would. But, his inability to bridge the chasm between social conservatives and the more fiscally minded establishment of the party doomed him.

What then does the future hold for Santorum? He offered few specific clues in his speech today but made clear he will not go quietly into that good night.

“We are going to continue to go out there and fight to make sure that we defeat President Barack Obama, that we win the House back, and that we take the United States Senate, and we stand for the values that make us Americans,” Santorum said in his speech.

By leaving the race when he did, Santorum did himself considerable political good. Continuing on — and continuing to savage Romney as he did in the wake of his losses in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia last week — could well have undone much of the good will that he accrued during the campaign.

Santorum will now be fondly remembered by Republican activists and the party’s political class, a status that makes the conservative world his oyster.

He could certainly follow the path trod by Huckabee, setting himself up as a leading conservative commentator. Or, Santorum could begin organizing for a return presidential bid — in either 2016 if President Obama is reelected or in 2020. He would be 58 in 2016 and 62 in 2020, plenty young enough to mount another race. And, given the surprising strength of his candidacy this time around, he would likely be viewed as a serious and credible candidate.

That Santorum is even in the mix as a potential presidential candidate in future elections speaks to how far he came in the course of the last 18 months. What he does next remains to be seen but his options have multiplied tenfold due to the race he ran and how he chose to end it.

 
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