April may be a long, long month for Rick Santorum.
The former Pennsylvania senator is determined to stay in the GOP presidential race, but beyond his die-hard supporters, few Republicans want to see the battle continue.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is collecting delegates by the bushel. He swept Wisconsin, Maryland, and the District of Columbia on Tuesday, which upped his tally to 655 delegates, more than twice Santorum’s 278 delegates, per the Associated Press.
To survive past April 24, when five northeastern states, including Pennsylvania, hold primaries, Santorum desperately needs cash, momentum, and a new rationale. His campaign, which has resisted building a large national apparatus, is struggling to compete with Romney’s operation.
“On both the delegate front and the media-narrative front, Santorum is going to have a much rougher time in Pennsylvania than he’s selling, so it could be lights out,” says Mike Murphy, a longtime GOP consultant and a former adviser to Romney and Senator John McCain.
Inside the Beltway, the open question is whether Santorum cares. Among GOP operatives, one school believes that Santorum will campaign until he spends his final dollar, touting his candidacy as the one that tried valiantly to stop Romney, all the way until August. Another school believes that Santorum will bow out after an embarrassing defeat in Pennsylvania.
Romney’s aides are preparing for both scenarios, but hope for the latter. “I’m not terribly worried about it, provided that it’s over well before the convention,” says former Minnesota congressman Vin Weber, a senior Romney adviser. Romney, he says, has already pivoted toward the general election in many respects, and remains focused on the president rather than his Republican opponents.
Weber attributes Santorum’s fizzle to a muddled message. Santorum, he says, seeks to be a movement candidate, the leader of a cause, even though his platform, for the most part, echoes Romney’s agenda. “I don’t see the great issues that Santorum is bringing forward,” he says. With Romney committed to tax cuts and the repeal of Obamacare, “I don’t know what he’s fighting for.”
“A couple of guys in dark suits are going to come see him and say, ‘Look, Rick, you’ve officially come in second and that’s a good thing in the Republican party,’” Murphy predicts. “They’ll remind him that he’s young and positioned as ‘the conservative,’ so if Mitt can’t beat Barack Obama, he’ll be set up to be one of the front-runners in four years. Their argument will be simple: Don’t mess around here. Your long game is better than your short game, so get rational.”
But even if GOP grandees approach Santorum and privately ask for him to step aside for the good of the party, Santorum, for now, appears unwilling to withdraw. His remarks on Tuesday night hint at plans for a brutal, drawn-out brawl with Romney, not a quiet springtime concession.
Addressing supporters in Mars, Pa., Santorum was defiant. “There are no marching bands. We’re hitting the field. The clock starts tonight,” he told the hometown crowd. He then compared his run to Ronald Reagan’s failed 1976 primary bid, when the conservative Californian challenged the incumbent president Gerald Ford, a moderate Republican from Michigan.
“[Reagan] was able to stand tall and in May win the state of Texas, which we have every intention of doing,” Santorum said as he pounded the podium. “He took that race the entire way to the convention and he fell short, and in the fall Republicans fell short because we nominated another moderate who couldn’t galvanize our party and bring those votes to our side.”
But outside of Santorum’s Pittsburgh-area political base, Republican leaders are not buying the Romney-as-Ford argument. In recent weeks, conservative stars such as Florida senator Marco Rubio and Wisconsin representative Paul Ryan have endorsed Romney. They’re part of a growing movement on the right to coalesce around the former governor.
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.”
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.