Santorum’s Self-Defeating Tack to the Far Right
Policy + Politics

Santorum’s Self-Defeating Tack to the Far Right

REUTERS/Jason Cohn

Rick Santorum lost his Senate seat to Democrat Bob Casey six years ago by a stunning 18 percentage points, and he appeared to be headed for an embarrassing loss to Republican rival Mitt Romney in the Keystone State’s April 24 GOP presidential primary.

The fiery conservative and darling of the Christian right has campaigned for months claiming to be the true heir to Republican president Ronald Reagan’s conservative legacy. He frequently recalled how the Republican Party mistakenly nominated moderate Gerald Ford in 1976, only to see him lose, and then wisely turned to Reagan four years later to win back the White House. Santorum clearly hopes to follow in Reagan’s footsteps.

But if he were to lose for a second time in Pennsylvania later this month, experts say his political future would be over, and his dream of seeking the White House again in 2016 in the event Romney loses to President Obama this fall would be dashed.  So on Tuesday, the 53-year-old Santorum announced not far from the Civil War battlefields of Gettysburg that he was suspending his campaign, and would work to help the Republicans defeat Obama and take back control of the Congress in November.

“We made the decision to get into this race at the kitchen table against all the odds and we made a decision over the weekend that while this presidential race for us is over for me and we will suspend our campaign effective today, we are not done fighting,” Santorum said, surrounded by his wife, Karen, his chief adviser, and most of their seven children.

In a campaign valedictory in which he recounted his improbable rise from political obscurity to win the Iowa caucuses and ten subsequent contests in the South, far West and Upper Northwest, Santorum made no mention of Romney, although he reportedly conferred with the former Massachusetts governor  by phone before making his announcement.

Instead, Santorum delivered an unapologetic defense of his aggressive campaign style -- what many critics called his fatal campaign detour in early February. That’s when he began to focus more on his strong Roman Catholic views regarding abortion, contraception and gay marriage, and said that John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech in defense of the separation of church and state made him want to “throw up.” What he didn’t talk about was the economy and other more compelling campaign issues.

Repeatedly, Santorum invoked Reagan’s legacy and rhetoric, telling his supporters that he will campaign for his party by “standing for the values that make us Americans -- that make us the greatest country in the history of the world -- that shining city on the hill, to be a beacon for everybody for freedom around the world.”

Santorum’s decision to pack it in followed a difficult Easter holiday weekend of tending to a family emergency and reevaluating his diminished prospects of catching up to the well financed and well organized Romney campaign. Santorum and his wife, Karen, had put their campaigning on hold after the hospitalization of their youngest daughter, Bella, 3, three years old, who suffers from a rare genetic disorder.

The campaign focused on the Pennsylvania primary, which earlier appeared to be a snap for Santorum to win, but that had greately tightened up in recent weeks, according to a number of polls.

Hogan Gidley, the campaign spokesman, told MSNBC yesterday afternoon that Santorum believed he could still beat Romney in Pennsylvania, but was facing even tougher odds down the road in Texas and other must-win states. Santorum was hoping for a game change in Texas, where he was leading Romney and the others in the polls. He was counting on a group of Texas party activists to change the rules for the May 29 primary from proporational distribution of delegates based on the popular vote to winner take all, so that whoever wins would get all 152 delegates.

 But the latest indications are that the party will stick with its current rules, which would all but assure that Romney would claim a sizable share of delegates, even if he doesn’t come in first. Romney currently leads the GOP pack with 661 of the 1,144 delegates needed for nomination, compared to only 285 for Santorum, 136 for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and 51 for Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.

G. Terry Madonna, a political expert and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, dismissed Gidley’s assessment.  “Santorum was probably going to lose Pennsylvania, as my poll and other polls showed,” Madonna told The Fiscal Times Tuesday. “The likelihood that he would lose his state – and two defeats in Pennsylvania – would be devastating. This is a question of reality setting in, and he wants a future. Where does he go if he loses his home state not once but twice,” Madonna added. “He certainly wants to run for the presidency down the line.”

University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato agreed: “Santorum was on the verge of losing his own state, the one he represented in Congress for 16 years. That would not just have ended his 2012 presidential campaign; it probably would have finished off any future White House ambitions. Santorum is relatively young, after all.”

Santorum's drop in the polls in Pennsylvania can be attributed to his emphasis on conservative social issues over the past month, Madonna and other pollsters said. In and around Philadelphia, Republicans are moderate on issues such as abortion rights and gay marriage.

There were other factors as well: Santorum was having trouble raising the kind of money you need to wage a protracted national campaign. And he was feeling mounting pressure from the GOP Establishment to drop out of the race as more and more prominent Republicans, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, endorsed Romney.
Santorum was getting similar advice from his friends on the religious right.

Richard Land, the president of the ethics commission at the Southern Baptist Convention, told The New York Times shortly before yesterday’s announcement that Santorum would be foolish not to get out now. “As his friend, I would say, you know you’ve done an incredible job resurrecting your career. You’ve done better than anybody thought you could,” Land said. He added that if Santorum pressed ahead, he would jeopardize that success. Santorum had a good future, Land noted, but only if he acknowledged Romney’s claim to the nomination this year.

Santorum’s announcement came only two days after Gingrich all but conceded the race to Romney on a weekend television show, and it is remarkably good news for Romney. The former Massachusetts governor and business executive has begun to turn his attention from the primary to a general election assault on Obama’s economic, domestic and foreign policy record.  But he still had to worry about Santorum and Gingrich nipping at his heels.

A new Washington Post-ABC news poll shows Obama with a clear advantage over Romney on personal attributes and a number of key issues. But Obama remains vulnerable on the slow economic recovery. The poll also showed 44 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independent voters saying they would like Romney to be the nominee and 25 percent choosing Santorum. Having Santorum on his side would definitely help Romney unite the fractious GOP.

Romney issued a statement moments after Santorum concluded his remarks saying, “Senator Santorum is an able and worthy competitor, and I congratulate him on the campaign he ran. He has proven himself an important voice in our party and in the nation. We both recognize that what is most important is putting the failures of the last three years behind us and setting America back on the path to prosperity.”

Santorum told Romney that he is committed to defeating Obama, but that he is not going to endorse immediately, according to media reports.

After one of the nastiest Republican presidential primaries in memory, it is difficult to imagine how the warring camps can come together in a plausible manner. Gingrich was spitting nails after Romney’s SuperPac mercilessly hammered him with negative ads during the early primaries that deflated the Gingrich boomlet, and Gingrich vowed to do everything possible to deny him the nomination.

Santorum, too, became enraged after Romney outspent him five to one and six to one on negative ads that portrayed Santorum as a big government spender and Washington influence peddler. When a Romney senior aide said on national television that the campaign would hit the restart button after the primary, Santorum lashed out at Romney as the “Etch-A-Sketch candidate”  whose word meant nothing.

Santorum has also declared  that he would rather see President Obama reelected than have Romney win the GOP nomination and go on to occupy  the White House. "You win by giving people the opportunity to see a different vision for our country, not someone who's just going to be a little different than the person in there,"  Santorum told a crowd in San Antonio.” If you're going to be a little different, we might as well stay with what we have instead of taking a risk with what may be the Etch-A-Sketch candidate for the future."

It will be interesting to see how Santorum walks all of that back.