Steubenville, Ohio — By midnight on Tuesday, the high-school cafeteria here was nearly vacant. A few die-hard Santorum supporters lingered. Sitting on uncomfortable steel chairs with their arms crossed, they quietly watched a television mounted on the concrete wall. They had been there for hours, watching Bret, Megyn, and the rest of the Fox News team. They were waiting for good news. But they didn’t hear it.
At 12:38 a.m., when Fox News finally called it for Romney, the stragglers collectively sighed. One man hit his knee and simply said, “Damn.” He got up, grabbed a Santorum sign and walked out the door.
But beyond the Ohio numbers, Santorum had a pretty good night. He won three contests — Tennessee, North Dakota, and Oklahoma.
He also sharpened his stump speech — taking a scalpel on national television to Romney’s health-care positions, and avoiding extemporaneous tangents in a way that he has not done for months.
Santorum’s top advisers tell National Review Online that they are pleased with the results, even if they didn’t capture the Buckeye State.
“We are going to stay in this until November,” says John Brabender, Santorum’s senior strategist. Santorum, he says, with his wins across the map, proved that he’s a national contender and the conservative favorite.
“I feel good about it,” agrees Mike Biundo, Santorum’s campaign manager. “Romney has been on his heels a little bit. And he should be.”
Biundo is already sketching out a revised game plan to put the heat on Romney in upcoming primaries. He looks at a handful of races this month — the Kansas caucus, the Alabama primary, the Mississippi primary –and he sees an opportunity to close the gap with the Romney machine.
“There are a lot of good opportunities for us,” Biundo says. “We’re going to play well in the South. We feel we have a good shot.”
Brabender says that losing Ohio in a nail-biter hasn’t depressed Santorum supporters. In fact, he says, the close nature of the race, especially after being outspent by Romney forces, has yielded a slew of small donations within the past few hours.
“We just looked at his online numbers while [Santorum] was speaking and it went through the roof,” Brabender says. The rate and speed of the donations, he adds, eclipses any other moment in the campaign. After raising $9 million in February, he says, the resources continue to grow.
“Santorum is right in it,” says Ohio attorney general Mike DeWine, Santorum’s top state surrogate. “He’s going to keep moving, keep getting momentum, and stay in this all the way. Romney is flat.”
That was the takeaway here. Santorum had a good night, not a great one, but his supporters have energy. Their candidate has pep. It may not be enough to win the nomination, but it’s enough, for now, to keep fighting.