Santorum defies mounting pressure to bow out

April 2, 2012

“I’m not talking about this anymore,” Rick Santorum said here Sunday outside the Riverside Brewery and Restaurant before a gaggle of cameras and reporters. “We’re just focused on doing well here in Wisconsin.”

What Santorum doesn’t want to talk about is what so many others want to talk about, which is how long he will stay in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination. He is confronted by that question at almost every stop along the campaign trail and in every television interview he gives. He’s tired of it.

“I think I’ve answered the question I’m going to answer,” he says.

He hears all the voices from the Republican establishment, like that of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Sunday morning. No, they’re not explicitly telling Santorum to get out. But the message is unmistakable: The nomination battle has gone on long enough. It’s now time to let Mitt Romney, the presumptive nominee, and the rest of the party concentrate on the general election campaign against President Obama.

Santorum is trying not to listen. He thinks back instead to those days not so many months ago when his campaign was nothing more than himself, “my son John, a guy named Chuck [Laudner] and a Dodge Ram pickup truck” roaming through Iowa, talking to anyone who would listen.

He counts 385 campaign events in Iowa over the past year or so, with audiences ranging from a few to a few hundred. The so-called experts wrote him off, gave him no chance, paid no attention to him. Now he is in the finals.

“Think about it,” he said to an audience of Republicans at a luncheon in Fond du Lac on Sunday afternoon. “How does someone like me get here? How does this happen? This is the age of politics of billionaires, big money, endorsements. How does someone who had no money, lost his last race, driving around with a truck in Iowa — how does it possibly happen that you end up winning 11 states against somebody who’s outspending you 10 to 1?”

He hears all the talk about Romney’s inevitability, but he looks at the calendar and says he’s had a pretty good few weeks, winning primaries in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana while Romney was winning Illinois and Puerto Rico.

But reality is beginning to settle in around him. He is likely to lose three contests on Tuesday. In Maryland and the District, he could lose by crushing margins. In Wisconsin, the real battleground, he clings to the hope of “doing well” but even he has expressed doubts publicly that he can win.

After Tuesday, there is a three-week gap before the next round of contests. Virtually all look bad for Santorum, the only exception being his home state of Pennsylvania, which after this week’s results will become a must-win contest for him. On Sunday, he virtually guaranteed that he would win Pennsylvania and, inexplicably, harshly attacked a poll — and the pollster in charge of it — that showed the race there a toss-up.

The gulf between Santorum and the party establishment seems to be growing. They see him as ignoring the obvious. They worry that a sustained campaign by Santorum, particularly one in which he continues to attack Romney as a nominee who can’t draw clear contrasts with Obama, as he has been doing all across Wisconsin, will hurt their chances of winning in November.

But why should Santorum listen to any of them at this point? Why should he pay attention to people who gave him little credit from the start? Why should he say good things about a candidate he believes helped pave the way for Obama’s health-care law by enacting legislation in Massachusetts that he says was the blueprint for the national law whose fate is now before the Supreme Court?

The way he sees it, the establishment is out of touch, in a bubble, disconnected from the base of its own party. “They see the world very, very differently than we do and I think most Americans do,” he told reporters Sunday morning. Grass-roots Republicans, he believes, want a conservative nominee.

Santorum says he represents the base of the party, but does he overstate? National Journal’s Ron Brownstein crunched the exit polls recently and found that Santorum’s base is really only among very conservative evangelical Christians. He has won those voters consistently throughout the primaries.

But Romney has won evangelicals who say they are conservative, rather than very conservative, and has won evangelicals who are moderate or liberal, and he has won non-evangelicals across the ideological spectrum. Which means that non-evangelicals who consider themselves very conservative are with the former Massachusetts governor, not the former Pennsylvania senator.

For the record, Santorum says he will not end his candidacy until Romney reaches the 1,144 delegates needed for nomination, which isn’t likely to happen until near the end of the primary season in June.

But over the next few weeks, he will have to think about his options and his future. A victory in Pennsylvania would give him incentive to keep running and to look ahead to a series of contests in May that, given past voting patterns, he might win. They include Texas, Kentucky, Arkansas, North Carolina and Indiana.

A loss in Pennsylvania, however, would leave him little rationale to claim with any credibility that he has a chance to stop Romney. Having lost the other big industrial states — Illinois, Ohio and Michigan — he could hardly contend that he is best suited to carry those states against Obama.

Pennsylvania looms large for Santorum for other reasons. If he is thinking to the future — and there’s no reason to think he wouldn’t be, given the success he has had in this campaign — he can ill afford to lose his home state. Nor would he want to be seen as someone who stayed in the race for reasons of personal vanity or whose continued presence damaged the nominee.

Santorum might not want to talk about all this now. But the day is coming when he will have to start having that conversation with himself, his family and his advisers.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.
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