The Survivor

by Robert Costa

Rick Santorum’s departure from the Republican presidential race is hardly a surprise. His daughter, Bella, was recently hospitalized, he was trailing Mitt Romney in the Pennsylvania polls, and he was short on cash. What’s surprising is that he was even here, in late April, contending for the nomination.

After a disastrous 2006 reelection campaign, Santorum largely faded from the national scene. He became a Fox News pundit, a Beltway consultant, and a low-profile speaker-for-hire. When he announced his quixotic bid last year, no one, outside of a few conservative blogs, paid attention.

And for most of 2011, a few bloggers remained the only political observers who seemed to take him seriously. He took constant trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, logging more hours on the road than most contenders, but he campaigned far from the Klieg lights of the network cameras. Even getting airtime on his recent employer, Fox, was a daily struggle.

Eventually, in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses, Santorum began to catch fire as Herman Cain, Jon Huntsman, and Michele Bachmann fizzled. Quite suddenly, his sweater vest, the Dodge pickup he drove around the state, and his long-winded, peppy town-hall meetings became symbols of an insurgency. The crowds swelled, as did his poll numbers.

Santorum’s shoe-string campaign ultimately was one of many reasons for his springtime stumble. But today, as he bows out, it’s worth remembering that the Pennsylvanian was more than a “Romney alternative” this cycle. Sure, that was part of why he ascended, but it’s not the whole story. More than that, Santorum proved, again and again, that’s he’s a political survivor.

In Iowa, he relied on retail politics, the kind that win state assembly races and congressional seats, to catapult himself, almost by will, into contention. Foster Friess and the pro-Santorum super PAC was another factor, but Santorum’s ability to make much out of few resources and a limited staff was masterful.

After narrowly winning the Hawkeye State, he tapped into national evangelical, Catholic, and tea-party networks to build a movement based on freedom, faith, and family. It was an imperfect coalition, since Santorum, of course, is a politician with an imperfect record. But it mostly held together through Super Tuesday, and almost lifted Santorum to victory in Ohio.

Santorum will likely be remembered as the Mike Huckabee of 2012, as the plucky social conservative who came out of nowhere to challenge the GOP establishment, only to collapse as the party coalesced around the front-runner.

But as for me, I’ll remember his bid as the gritty one. He never quit — even after his Iowa win was botched, or after he lost New Hampshire and South Carolina. He found a way to come back three times — once from the bottom of the polls in the winter, again in early February, and a final time in the Deep South in March.

It wasn’t enough, but what a ride.