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Why Santorum Won’t Drop Out Now

Rick Santorum celebrated Easter and spent time with his family this weekend. He’ll spend Monday with his hospitalized 3-year-old daughter Bella whose fight for life has been an inspiring and sympathetic parallel journey to his campaign since its inception. All of this, along with the fact that there has been no major ad buys in the upcoming primary state of Pennsylvania, is fueling speculation that Santorum is considering pulling out. Given that he has virtually no chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination and stands to suffer a terrible humiliation if, as is entirely possible, he loses his home state primary later this month, there are good reasons why Santorum should do just that. But the betting here right now is that he won’t.

Though a veteran and in many ways a highly practical politician, Santorum has a vision of his career and his party that has never exactly conformed to what other people thought he should do. While this might be the right moment to cash in his chips after a remarkable primary run that brought him more success than anyone outside his inner circle thought possible, the thinking here is that he has gone too far to pull out now when he still thinks he could win at home and then do some more damage in the May primaries. Even more to the point, he may have come to the conclusion that being a “team player” and standing aside for frontrunner Mitt Romney will not materially aid the party or his long-range plans.

As Santorum made clear in his speech last week after losing the Wisconsin, Maryland and District of Columbia primaries, he views himself in the role that Ronald Reagan played in 1976 when the future president carried his challenge to incumbent president Gerald Ford all the way to the Republican convention that year. Unlike Reagan, who was locked in a virtual dead heat with Ford, Santorum is far behind in the delegate count. But he has been speaking as if he saw Romney as a certain loser in November, which would give him the same opportunity to pick up the pieces of a defeated party and lead it to victory the next time around as Reagan did in 1980. In that scenario, which envisions his name as being at the top of the list of 2016 contenders next January, there is no advantage to dropping out and acknowledging Romney as the nominee now.

There are those who consider this plan delusional. As some of the pundits said on yesterday’s Fox News Sunday panel, in the event Romney loses this year, Santorum would face some formidable competition in 2016 from the young GOP stars such as Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal, all of whom didn’t run this year. Most of the pundits think he won’t have a chance then, but Santorum has never been one to take their advice. Santorum’s 11 primary and caucus wins may have been a fluke created by some unique circumstances such as the failure of any conservative challenger to emerge, but social conservatives and others on the right are not any more likely to listen to the party’s so-called establishment in 2016 than they were this year. If another moderate Republican nominee goes down to Obama, conservatives are going to spend the next four years vowing not to let it happen again, and Santorum will have a leg up with them even if it is hard to imagine him ever winning the nomination if a genuine and viable conservative alternative steps forward.

Of course, this scenario will take a major hit if he loses Pennsylvania on April 24, because it will invoke the memory of his 2006 landslide defeat for re-election to the Senate, an event that many thought ended Santorum’s career and presidential hopes. Romney will invest the time and resources there and much of the state party apparatus will be backing him against Santorum. But dropping out now with just two weeks to go before the opportunity to win his home state will be just as humiliating as actually getting beaten at the polls. If he wants to run again, and I believe he does, there is no alternative but to stay in until he is mathematically eliminated.

Doing so is not so much a matter of strategic calculation as it is a reflection of the man’s character. If he were the sort of person who made political decisions based on a careful evaluation of the odds, he wouldn’t have tilted so far to the right during his second term in the Senate. Nor would he have run for re-election in 2006 or bothered to try for the presidency this year. He ran because he believed in himself and his message even if few others shared his view. He still does, perhaps more than ever after the last few months of unexpected triumphs.

The gap between Santorum’s vision of what his party should be doing and the reality of Romney being the inevitable nominee is considerable, but I don’t believe it will persuade him to drop out before facing the verdict of Pennsylvania Republicans. He may go down in flames again, but he is a true believer who won’t give up until he is forced to do so.


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