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Is Santorum Contesting 2012 or 2016?

Mitt Romney’s victories in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia will add more than 80 delegates to his total and extend his commanding lead over Rick Santorum for the Republican presidential nomination. That sets up Pennsylvania as the primary that has the chance to put the Republicans out of their misery and finally end the GOP race. Since the other states that will vote on April 24 — New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware — will almost certainly go for Romney, Santorum’s homecoming may be his last stand.

While Pennsylvania is being given the opportunity to finally put a fork in the long, agonizing Republican presidential race, listening to Santorum’s speech in his home state tonight one got the feeling the candidate was thinking as much about 2016 as he was the 2012 contest. By repeatedly invoking Ronald Reagan’s presidential runs in 1976 and 1980, Santorum seemed to be preparing more to tell the GOP, “I told you so,” if Romney loses in November, than about his own chances this year.

Though Santorum’s chances of winning the GOP nomination are rapidly diminishing, his anger at what he called the party “aristocracy” that backed Romney seems to be increasing. Rather than easing up on the all-but inevitable nominee as Republicans prepare to face off against the Obama re-election juggernaut, Santorum appears to be doubling down on his resentment at the fact that his party is choosing the more moderate candidate.

Part of that can be attributed to a desire on Santorum’s part not to have his remarkable primary run end with a humiliating loss in three weeks in his home state that would all but end the GOP competition. Yet it’s doubtful that even many Santorum’s backers are still under the delusion that he has a ghost of a chance to prevail in the “second half” of the delegate race. But by continuing to brand Romney as indistinguishable from Obama, Santorum may have more in mind than just trying to save face in Pennsylvania or winning a few more primaries in May.

During the course of his Tuesday night speech, Santorum compared himself to George Washington as well as Ronald Reagan. But when he brought up Reagan’s challenge to the moderate GOP establishment of his day, he didn’t limit himself to the example of the 40th president’s successful 1980 run but also mentioned his close loss to Gerald Ford in 1976. Reagan took the battle for the GOP nomination to the convention that year much as Santorum would like to do in 2012. The difference between the two is that the delegate race that year was almost evenly divided between Reagan and Ford while this year’s contest is a runaway for Romney.

Yet what Santorum seems to be doing is not so much comparing his chances this year to Reagan’s in 1976 as he is to the Gipper’s picking up the pieces of his party after Ford lost the general election to Jimmy Carter. Just as Reagan conservatives argued in 1980 that the party had erred by choosing the moderate four years earlier, Santorum appears more interested in being able to tell the GOP it is making a mistake on Romney than anything else. So rather than being a good “team player” for his party and laying off Romney as the race winds down, Santorum is increasing the volume of his attacks on the frontrunner.

Even though there are good reasons to believe Santorum’s shortcomings as a candidate will never enable him to win the presidency, should Romney lose to Obama, there’s little doubt that the Pennsylvanian’s name will be at the top of the list of GOP contenders for 2016 next January. Santorum may well believe his hopes for another run will not be enhanced by doing the right thing by the GOP and giving up once it’s clear he hasn’t a prayer to win this year. Instead, he will concentrate on a kamikaze run aimed solely at proving that Romney ought not to be the nominee.

Just as Romney appears to have pivoted away from beating his Republican competitors to  being solely focused on the battle with Obama, Santorum may well be running with 2016 more in mind than 2012. Should Romney win in November, all this will be in vain, but right now Santorum appears to be betting heavily on Obama’s re-election and another primary run four years from now.



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