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With Romney Endorsement, Is Santorum Thinking About 2016?

You might have thought that a decision of this magnitude would have rated a press conference rather than an e-mail message, but Mitt Romney isn’t likely to be asking any questions about Rick Santorum’s endorsement of his candidacy. Santorum obviously needed a cooling off period following his withdrawal from the race last month as well as a lengthy meeting with Romney last weekend before finally breaking down and endorsing the man who will be the Republican presidential nominee.

The e-mail message to his supporters signaling his backing for the winner of the GOP presidential marathon doesn’t change anything now, but it is important for Romney as he works to unite his party. Santorum won the affection of evangelicals and other social conservatives during his surprisingly successful run and could, if he decides to spend the next six months working hard to beat President Obama, help generate some enthusiasm among the party’s grass roots activists who have been somewhat cool to the nominee.

Santorum’s level of interest in the fall election could tell us a lot about his intentions for 2016. The long wait for a Santorum endorsement seems to indicate that the former Pennsylvania senator took the rough and tumble of the primary campaign a bit more personally than some of the other candidates. He emerged from the bruising and often personal battle with some hard feelings about being outspent and deluged with negative ads paid for by the Romney juggernaut. But while he may not have completely gotten over that experience, Santorum knows that he has no alternative but to endorse Romney and provide any assistance he can offer.

More to the point, unlike virtually all of the rest of the once large Republican field, Santorum is the only one of whom it can be said the race enhanced rather than diminished his standing in his party. That means if Romney loses in November, Santorum will probably be thinking of himself as a leading contender for the 2016 presidential run. Many in his party may think Santorum is crazy to assume that he can clean up the mess after another moderate defeat in 2012 or to believe he can sweep to the nomination four years from now the way Ronald Reagan did in 1980 after his close 1976 loss. But there’s no denying he will be a major player in GOP politics if President Obama is re-elected. And it won’t do him any harm among the Republican faithful if he is seen as materially aiding Romney’s cause.

Of course, Romney isn’t planning on losing the election, and it’s not clear what, if any possible role Santorum could play in a new Republican administration. Romney will gladly stomach Santorum’s delays and low-key endorsement so long as it means that he can count on his former rival’s help in energizing the party base.

Reading the text of Santorum’s endorsement, there’s little doubt that while he is being candid about his desire to defeat President Obama, this is a man who is thinking as much about his own future as the standard bearer for conservatives as he is about November 2012. Time will tell just how unrealistic those dreams may be, but for the moment he is safely in Romney’s camp, and that is something the Republicans badly needed to happen.



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