Chris Cillizza
Chris Cillizza
The Fix

By quitting, Rick Santorum preserves his chance to run again

By ending his presidential campaign two weeks before the Pennsylvania primary, Rick Santorum avoided what could have been an embarrassing defeat in his home state and preserved not only his raised profile in the Republican Party but his chances of again running for president.

Santorum’s decision came after a series of setbacks in recent weeks made abundantly clear that, while he retained a following among conservatives, his Republican delegate deficit against Mitt Romney was simply insurmountable.

Chris Cillizza

Chris Cillizza is founder and editor of The Fix, a leading blog on state and national politics. He is the author of The Gospel According to the Fix: An Insider’s Guide to a Less than Holy World of Politics and an MSNBC contributor and political analyst. He also regularly appears on NBC and NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show. He joined The Post in 2005 and was named one of the top 50 journalists by Washingtonian in 2009.

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It also followed closely on the hospitalization of Santorum’s 3-year-old daughter, Bella, who has a rare genetic disorder called Trisomy 18. She was released from the hospital early Tuesday morning.

Santorum began the contest as an afterthought — at best. He had lost his 2006 Senate reelection bid by 18 points, so the idea that he 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 at every debate, as he was regularly placed at the far ends of the stage.

While he was being ignored in the national conversation, Santorum embarked on what at the time seemed like a quaint strategy: visiting all 99 counties in Iowa, the first state to vote in 2012.

As fall turned to winter and onetime conservative alternatives to Romney — including former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), businessman Herman Cain and Texas Gov. Rick Perry — imploded, Santorum’s tortoise approach started to pay dividends.

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

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

If Iowa was a missed opportunity for Santorum, the Michigan primary was a critical self-inflicted wound.

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

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

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

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

In the end, Santorum’s bid showed the strength and the limits of running as the social-conservative candidate. His inability to bridge the chasm between those voters and the more fiscally minded establishment wing of the GOP doomed him.

By leaving the race when he did, Santorum did himself considerable political good. He will now be fondly remembered by Republican activists, a status that makes the conservative world his oyster.

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

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

 
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