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Rick Santorum’s Long Goodbye
The conservative insurgent faces daunting odds.

Rick Santorum tries to rally his troops in Mars, Pa., April 3, 2012.

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Robert Costa

Santorum, who last year launched a seemingly improbable White House bid, has successfully persevered due to his appeal as a Romney alternative. But as the desire for a Romney alternative diminishes, Santorum risks becoming less of a contender and more of a frustrated, quixotic spoiler.

“There’s no path forward for Santorum,” says Ed Rollins, a veteran Republican strategist who managed Reagan’s 1984 presidential campaign. “He has the right to stay in until Pennsylvania, to play for his home state, but if he loses that, he’ll have to rethink. But at this point, he doesn’t have a campaign or the resources to compete there, so it’ll be tough for him to save face.”

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The latest Keystone State polls show Santorum leading Romney, but he does not have a comfortable edge. A Quinnipiac poll has Santorum up by 6 percentage points among likely GOP voters; a Franklin & Marshall poll has the pair in a near statistical tie. National polls show conservative Republicans moving toward Romney, as did the exit polls from Wisconsin.

So why is Santorum so adamant? Among GOP insiders, there is rampant speculation that he is angling for the vice-presidential nomination, in spite of his harsh words for Romney. “He sees 2016 as crowded, so part of him must believe that getting on the ticket now, even if Romney wants to go in another direction, is the reason to stay in until the summer,” says one Republican strategist.

Inside Romney World, however, the idea of the Pennsylvanian in the number-two slot amuses many of the former governor’s advisers. At a contested convention, Romney allies acknowledge, Santorum could play hardball. But thanks to victories in a slew of Rust Belt primaries, the Romney camp is less and less concerned about potential tumult in Tampa.

There is also little affection for the former senator within Romney’s inner circle. He is widely viewed by top aides as brash and undisciplined. “He has shown, emotionally, softness under pressure,” says former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, a Romney confidant. As the vice-presidential stakes heat up, Sununu does not expect Santorum to feature in those discussions.

Beyond the veep chatter, if Santorum plays his cards right in April — perhaps by coming close in Pennsylvania then retreating in early May — he could leave the field with his reputation and political future intact, many Republican operatives conclude. “But if Santorum begins to be seen as an irritant to the cause of beating President Obama, it’ll be a millstone he has to wear around his neck in the future,” says Scott Jennings, a former deputy political director in the George W. Bush White House. “He would be remembered as the guy who tried to injure the party’s nominee.”

Rollins — a former adviser to Mike Huckabee, the “conservative alternative” in the 2008 election cycle — thinks that Santorum will eventually put his promising future ahead of his unhappiness about Romney’s ascension. “Santorum’s problem is that he doesn’t really have a campaign,” he says. “He has been lifted by a super PAC and small donors. Now that the inevitability that Romney has always wanted is there, Santorum is losing credibility. He’ll start to see that.”

— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.



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