It isn't personal - it's just business. They remember the party losing its majorities six years ago in the state congressional delegation and the state House.
"I've stood with him, and I've gone down with the ship," former Republican Rep. Phil English of Erie said last week, remembering campaigning with his friend Santorum in that bleak year for the GOP. In 2012, English has endorsed Mitt Romney, believing he's electable.
"The Republican Party needs to put forward a ticket which allows us to attract swing voters, attract Democrats," English said, "and build a working coalition to make a state like Pennsylvania competitive."
Complicating things - and perhaps playing into party chieftains' hands - is the way Pennsylvania Republicans choose their delegation. At a time when Santorum most needs to cut Romney's advantage in delegate strength, GOP strategists say he could wind up with few, if any, delegates here - even if he carries the popular vote.
In the state's two-tiered presidential primary, the popular vote is a nonbinding "beauty contest." Potential delegates to the summer GOP nominating convention run separately on the ballot in their home congressional districts - uncommitted to any presidential candidate.
The aspiring delegates on the ballot include a virtual who's who of party elders: members of the GOP state committee, current and former members of Congress, local elected officials, and activists with strong party ties. Though Pennsylvania's Republican leadership is officially neutral, it has been leaning toward Romney, and there is what one operative called a "presumption" that delegates will be receptive to what the party - and Gov. Corbett, also officially neutral - wants.
"Winning the primary doesn't mean the delegates follow," said Alan Novak, a former state GOP chairman who is supporting Romney. "Most of the delegates will be familiar with the process ... pragmatic political thinkers."
Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, both of whom have Pennsylvania roots, have managed to place supporters on the ballot as delegate candidates in many congressional districts. But Republican operatives figure only about a half-dozen of those candidates are solidly in the Santorum camp.
The contours of the campaign played a part in this. Santorum began as an underdog who bet everything on the Iowa caucuses - which he narrowly won - and then scrambled to organize in succeeding state contests, leaving him necessarily more focused on day-to-day survival than recruiting potential delegates back in Pennsylvania.
All of which make it easier for state party leaders to muscle delegates into Romney's column, regardless of how well Santorum does with primary voters. But State Sen. Jake Corman (R., Centre), a Santorum protégé and supporter who is running to be a convention delegate, said there would be intense public pressure for the delegation to back the popular-vote winner.
"Even though there's no rule, I think we're obligated to represent our districts," Corman said last week. "If delegates aren't going to vote the way the people vote, why even have a popular vote? There would be an uproar, and people who would have a whole lot of explaining to do."
Corman said he would reflect the views of voters in his Fifth Congressional District if he were sent to the Tampa convention as a delegate.
Getting there isn't simple: Republican voters elect 59 delegates April 24 - three from each of the state's 18 congressional districts, with one "bonus" delegate for each of five districts that have generated the most votes for GOP candidates over the last four years.
Then the GOP state committee chooses 10 at-large delegates in June, and there are three superdelegates - two national committee members and the state chairman.
Pennsylvania delegates have not played a pivotal role in a GOP nomination for decades. But little more than a generation ago, the state's Republicans twice found themselves in great demand.
In 1976, neither President Gerald Ford nor challenger Ronald Reagan had locked up the nomination before the Kansas City convention. So Reagan vowed to make his running mate a Pennsylvania Republican - Sen. Richard Schweiker, a moderate - hoping to get the state's delegation to break its commitment to Ford. It didn't work.
In 1980, George H.W. Bush defeated Reagan 50 percent to 43 percent in Pennsylvania's GOP primary, but a majority of the state's delegates went with Reagan.
This time, Santorum enjoys a commanding lead in the latest poll. A Quinnipiac University survey of registered Republicans released last week had him with 36 percent to 22 percent for Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is the GOP establishment's choice for the nomination, but who continues to face resistance on the right.
Paul, the Texas congressman, drew 12 percent support in the poll, and former House Speaker Gingrich had 8 percent.
Interestingly, the same poll found that GOP women in Pennsylvania preferred Santorum to Romney, 41 percent to 18 percent. Men were about evenly split between the two leaders: 30 percent for Santorum, 27 percent for Romney.
The "gender gap" in Santorum's favor is striking, as he has written and inveighed against the trend of working women damaging the integrity of the American family, opposes abortion rights, and recently was talking about his view that birth control is immoral (though he does not want to ban it for those who disagree with him). Of course, many women agree with Santorum's positions, particularly on abortion.
The poll results, based on interviews with 508 registered GOP voters conducted March 7-12, are subject to a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
While Republican leaders are worried that Santorum might be a drag on down-ballot candidates as a presidential nominee, driving away independents, the Pennsylvania primary electorate seems tailor-made for him.
"The deck is stacked against Romney to win the popular vote," said James Lee, president of Susquehanna Polling & Research, a Republican survey firm based in Harrisburg.
Part of the reason, he said, is how the party has changed.
"The Pennsylvania party went through a kind of purification process a few years ago when hundreds of thousands of people switched to the Democrats to vote in the Obama-Hillary brawl," Lee said. "You're left with a much more conservative-leaning statewide primary electorate."
Half of likely Republican primary voters in Susquehanna's surveys say they identify with the tea party, and nearly 60 percent describe themselves as "very conservative," Lee said. About 35 percent of the GOP electorate lives in metropolitan areas, he said, and two-thirds are rural.
In other nominating contests so far this year, Romney has performed best among better-educated and more-affluent voters in suburbs, while Santorum has dominated rural areas.
Pennsylvania's primary is closed - meaning only registered Republicans can vote in it, unlike other battleground states such as Michigan and Ohio, where Romney edged out Santorum.
Santorum has some vulnerabilities here, including his endorsement of moderate former Sen. Arlen Specter (who later became a Democrat) in the 2004 primary over the conservative Pat Toomey, who was elected to the Senate two years ago. That still stings with many conservative activists - who also point to Santorum's enthusiasm in the Senate for earmarks and support for increases in federal spending, such as the Medicare prescription-drug benefit.
The influential Independence Hall Tea Party Association PAC, based in the Philadelphia area, has endorsed Romney.
In battles in Ohio and Michigan, Romney has been able to bludgeon Santorum with negative TV ads, outspending him 2-1 or more. But it's not clear that Romney would invest the money needed for an all-out blitz in Santorum's home state.
GOP sources say that the decision has not been made and that the Romney camp will weigh whether there is a chance to deliver a crushing blow to Santorum, or whether it is more prudent to try to help friendly delegate candidates win their contests.
Jeff Coleman, a Harrisburg-based GOP strategist, said that, in fighting for the nomination, Santorum has rekindled the grassroots enthusiasm he enjoyed in Pennsylvania before 2006 among Christian and other cultural-issue conservatives.
It would be much harder for Romney to define Santorum with negative advertising in a state where people know him, Coleman said.
"What Santorum has done," he said, "is welded together a coalition of populist, economic conservatives and the pro-family base of the party."
Contact Thomas Fitzgerald
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