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Santorum Will Be Back if Romney Loses

Rick Santorum may have sounded like a man who was determined to fight Mitt Romney to the bitter end last week. But that defiant tone and the wild talk about comparisons of his effort to Ronald Reagan’s duel with Gerald Ford was apparently merely the last gasp of his underdog run for the presidency. Today, Santorum bowed to reality and announced the suspension of his campaign. With Newt Gingrich already having acknowledged that Romney was the likely nominee, Santorum’s speech marks the informal end of the Republican presidential contest.

Some may believe that his decision is related to his daughter Bella’s serious illness. But because Santorum embarked on his run and continued it despite her being hospitalized earlier this year, it is more likely that he and his inner circle took a hard look at his prospects in the upcoming Pennsylvania Primary and concluded that he was heading for a humiliating loss in his home state. Despite the brave talk from the Santorum camp about their chances of denying Romney a majority of delegates, it was already clear it was just a matter of time until he clinched the nomination. While the rest of the year will be about Romney taking on President Obama, it’s fair to ask whether today’s announcement is the last moment Santorum will have on the national political scene.

It is telling that at no moment in his 20-minute speech today did Santorum mention the man who bested him. Though earlier in the race, he seemed to have become the nice guy in the race while Romney and Gingrich tore each other apart, it turns out that he, rather than the former speaker, was the one who took the rough and tumble of the campaign personally. While Santorum had to play the practical politician at times when he was in the Senate leadership, he is at heart, a true believer in the social conservative faith he espoused during the last year. It’s clear he has little use for Romney and isn’t aiming for either a role in the nominee’s fall campaign or a place in his administration. Though he concluded that the Ronald Reagan scenario he seemed to be sketching last week would be rendered implausible by defeat in Pennsylvania, he may still be thinking that he can pick up the pieces of a broken Republican Party after a Romney defeat this fall.

This is a scenario that will be scoffed at by many in the party who believe Santorum can never be elected president. Should Romney lose in November, there will be no shortage of Republican stars who will look like plausible candidates in 2016. But even if his social conservatism makes him a poor bet for the future, should the moderate winner of the GOP nomination fall short again this year, Santorum will be among the first names you hear next winter when pundits begin speculating about the next presidential election.

The bitter end of his effort ought not to obscure just how much Santorum accomplished in the last year. His was among the most unlikely candidacies when he first announced last summer. But he outlasted a succession of better-funded conservative alternatives and turned out to be the only person in the field who ever gave Romney much of a run for his money. The reason for his success stemmed from his ability to tap into the energy and the passion of evangelical voters desirous of a GOP candidate who espoused their views on social issues. If those evaluating the 2008 campaign gave Mike Huckabee credit for his far more limited success and even thought him a plausible GOP contender this year, why wouldn’t Santorum’s more impressive showing not earn him a place at the table four years from now?

Should Santorum run again, and now that he has had a taste of presidential politics, I think that’s more than likely, he would have a good chance of retaining the loyalty of evangelicals and would have four years to prepare a better financed and more organized presidential campaign.

But for any of that to happen, Romney has to lose. Should he win, today may well prove to be Santorum’s last hurrah.


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