Speaking from Mars last night, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum renewed his pledge to stay in the GOP presidential campaign to the bitter end, arguing that he is the one true conservative remaining in the field who could lead the party to victory over President Obama in November.
Ignoring his losses to frontrunner Mitt Romney in Maryland, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia earlier in the day, Santorum told loyalists who gathered in Mars, Pa. that their party was doomed to defeat this fall if it once again nominates a moderate like Romney to challenge a sitting Democratic president. Santorum noted that only once in the last 120 years has a Republican defeated an incumbent Democratic president, and that was when conservative icon Ronald Reagan toppled President Jimmy Carter in 1980.
“Time and time again the Republican establishment and aristocracy have shoved down the throats of the Republican Party and people across this country, moderate Republicans,” Santorum said. “Because of course we have to win by getting people in the middle. There's one person who understood, we don't win by moving to the middle. We win by getting people in the middle to move to us and move this country forward.”
But are GOP party “aristocrats” like former President George H.W. Bush, former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin really trying to shove Romney’s candidacy down the throats of rank and file GOP conservatives, as Santorum insists? Or has the right wing of the party gradually come Romney’s way, as primary entrance and exist polls strongly indicate.
Santorum has waged a populist campaign with a heavy appeal to social and religious conservatives --especially the anti-abortion and anti gay marriage forces -- and to fiscal conservatives -- especially small government advocates. The former Pennsylvania congressman and senator has belittled Romney as a phony conservative with no philosophical compass – the Etch a Sketch candidate who would do or say anything to win.
And Santorum insists that Republicans and the courts should disqualify Romney for the nomination because the health care reform plan he helped enact in Massachusetts became the model for Obama’s national health care initiative that is now under siege. “Ladies and gentleman if we're going to win this race, we can't have little differences between our nominee and President Obama,” Santorum said. “We have to have clear, contrasting colors.”
Yet Romney has won more than twice as many primaries and caucuses as Santorum – 24 to 10 -- and racked up more than twice as many delegates, 655 to 278. Republicans have been motivated to vote for Romney largely because they think he stands the best chance of beating Obama in November. And exit polls show that Romney has gradually been making inroads within Santorum’s political base.
Yesterday offered a prime example. Romney thumped Santorum, 43 percent to 38 percent, in Wisconsin in what began as a fairly competitive contest, and he beat Santorum in Maryland, 49 percent to 29 percent, in a race that Romney was favored to win from the start. In scoring those victories, Romney did very well among the most conservative and religiously motivated Republicans who turned out to vote.
In Wisconsin, Romney and Santorum were tied, 43 percent to 43 percent, among the third of the GOP voters who described themselves as “very conservative,” according to polls conducted by Edison Research for the National Election Pool. Romney trounced Santorum, 54 percent to 36 percent, among self-described “somewhat conservative” voters, while edging out Santorum among “moderate or liberal voters,” 36 percent to 33 percent.
Among the roughly half of Wisconsin Republican voters who said they support the anti-government Tea Party, Romney beat Santorum, 48 percent to 37 percent. Santorum’s only clear advantage was among the third or so of voters who identified themselves as evangelical Christians. They favored Santorum, a Roman Catholic, over Romney, a Mormon, by a margin of 43 percent to 38 percent.
In Maryland, Santorum and Romney ran almost neck and neck among “very conservative” Republicans, 41 percent to 40 percent, while Romney overshadowed Santorum among “somewhat conservative voters,” 58 percent to 25 percent. Romney also clobbered Santorum among Tea Party adherents, 48 percent to 31 percent. And surprisingly, Romney beat Santorum among evangelical Christians, 41 percent to 38 percent.
Among voters who describe themselves as moderate, Romney has carried a plurality or majority in 15 states. Equally important, he has won voters who identify as somewhat conservative in all but four states, according to a recent analysis of exit polling by the National Journal. Romney has also carried voters who make at least $100,000 annually in every state except South Carolina and Georgia, where they broke for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The former Massachusetts governor has carried voters with at least a four-year college degree in all but five Southern and Border States.
Romney’s most consistent and reliable support has come among voters who do not identify as evangelical Christians, according to the National Journal analysis. He has carried those voters in every state with an exit poll, except Gingrich’s home turf of Georgia. The flip side has been that Romney, in all but his strongest states, has consistently struggled with the key components of the GOP’s populist wing. Since Santorum revived his campaign with his three-state sweep of Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado on Feb. 7, the former Senator has consistently run very well with these voters.
Santorum is certain to remain in the race at least through April 24, the next time he goes up against Romney in Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. Santorum risks major embarrassment – and renewed calls from party leaders for him to drop out of the race and throw his support to Romney – if he loses in his home state of Pennsylvania.
Santorum and his aides insist that won’t happen. “We all know here that the Pennsylvania primary will be very, very, very important to the Rick Santorum campaign,” Hogan Gidley, a Santorum spokesman, told MSNBC today. “But it’s also very important to Mitt Romney, because they know that if we move into Pennsylvania with a win that we move into the May month, which of course is even more suited for Rick Santorum because states are there that he can win . . . and that’s Mitt Romney’s worst nightmare. He wants this thing to be over.”
But if Santorum’s political base continues to erode, he may have no choice but to get out or get written off as a self-absorbed spoiler.