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Is Santorum Building a Case for 2016?

Rick Santorum may have little hope of stopping Mitt Romney from gaining the Republican presidential nomination but he displayed no signs that he was giving up in a series of combative appearances on the Sunday morning talk shows yesterday. After having won ten primaries and caucuses, no one ought to begrudge him the right to play out the hand he has been dealt by the voters. But after Tuesday’s expected blowout in which losses in winner-take-all contests in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia could add almost 100 delegates to Romney’s total, the question for Santorum is whether he really intends to spend the next two months or more spouting angry and dismissive rhetoric about his party’s likely nominee.

With Tea Party favorite Sen. Ron Johnson endorsing Romney yesterday, the odds of an upset in Wisconsin are getting slimmer. Johnson’s backing along with that of Rep. Paul Ryan was a clear sign that leading conservatives in the state, as is the case elsewhere, have come to the conclusion it is time for the GOP to end the fratricide and start concentrating on the formidable task of beating President Obama in November and that perhaps Santorum should begin to think of his own political future. Santorum has rightly dismissed any talk about a 2016 presidential run. However, listening to the Pennsylvanian’s pitch to conservatives about Romney’s shortcomings, it is hard not to wonder whether he is laying the foundation for a future race whose main theme will be that Republicans were wrong not to pick him in 2012.

Trying to figure out what will happen in 2016 now is a futile task. But there is little doubt that if Romney loses in the fall, Santorum will spend the next four years endlessly saying, “I told you so.” Though there is little reason to believe Santorum’s brand of social conservatism would give him a better chance against Obama than Romney, should the inevitable nominee fall short, the right-wing of the GOP is certain to blame defeat on what they believe is the party’s establishment for foisting a moderate on them.

The notion that the GOP’s grass roots were betrayed by the Washington elites in 2012 is a theme that will be endlessly rehearsed in the coming years should Obama win a second term. Those who make such arguments will be wrong. The reason why Romney is going to be the nominee has more to do with the failure of a credible conservative candidate to enter the race than any machinations by a mythical establishment. Though it is hard to imagine Santorum becoming polished or organized enough to bridge the gap between being a feisty challenger and a nominee, it must be conceded that in January his name will be prominently mentioned when possible Republican candidates for 2016 are listed. And while his extreme positions on social issues will always be a barrier to winning a general election, should the GOP find itself in opposition next year, those who argued that a more centrist approach was needed in 2012 are not likely to find much of an audience among Republicans.

The assumption might be that if Santorum really does intend to try again the last thing he should be doing in the coming months is speaking and acting in such a way as to allow the country to think he was trying to sabotage Romney. Indeed, should he insist on dragging things out long after his defeat is assured, many Republicans will remember this, to Santorum’s discredit.

Santorum will be walking a fine line in the coming weeks as he attempts to avoid the humiliation of losing his home state of Pennsylvania on April 24. A defeat there would not only be the coup de grace to his campaign but also put a kibosh on any hopes of trying again for the presidency. But listening to Santorum in recent days, it occurs to me that perhaps he thinks it is more important to be able to say “I told you so” in the event of a Romney loss in the general election than to be a “team player” during the primary endgame.


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