Santorum staying in GOP race despite fading hopes

in Shawano, Wis., on Monday. He'll campaign hard across Pa. for the April 24 primary. JAE C. HONG / Associated Press
in Shawano, Wis., on Monday. He'll campaign hard across Pa. for the April 24 primary. JAE C. HONG / Associated Press (Rick Santorum)
Posted: April 04, 2012

To some analysts, Rick Santorum's campaign for president seems to have entered the zombie phase: not dead, but not fully alive either.

After sweeping Tuesday's Wisconsin, Maryland, and District of Columbia primaries, Mitt Romney has tightened his grip on the Republican nomination, and a rising chorus of GOP leaders is suggesting that Santorum quit in order to avoid further damage to the party's chances this fall.

Yet Santorum declared he was staying in the race, at least through the April 24 Pennsylvania primary, determined to litigate his case against Romney as a false conservative who offers a poor contrast to President Obama.

Six years ago, Pennsylvania voters bounced Santorum from the U.S. Senate as he was seeking a third term representing the state. Now he is looking to them to keep his fading presidential hopes alive.

"Pennsylvania is a must-win for us," Santorum senior adviser John Brabender said Tuesday in an interview. "If we win, we get all sorts of momentum going into May, which figures to be a great month for us." He argued that Romney "probably should not be our nominee if he can't win Pennsylvania, which is the crucial battleground state."

In May, the race moves to Texas, with 159 delegates, and several other states, including Kentucky, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Indiana, with the mix of very conservative evangelical voters who have formed the core of Santorum's support, according to exit polls.

Santorum has won 11 states so far, carrying 902 counties in primary and caucus states, more than twice as many as Romney, who has carried 411 counties. "That shows our support is more universal," Brabender said.

Unfortunately for Santorum, acreage does not vote. People do. And Romney has cleaned up among educated and more affluent Republicans in the populous suburban areas that are crucial in general elections.

As a result, Romney has carried all the big industrial swing states to vote thus far - Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

Santorum's appeal has been confined mostly to the overlap of voters who are evangelical Christians and also describe themselves as "very conservative," according an analysis of exit polls conducted last week by Langer Research Associates for the National Journal. Romney has won evangelicals who described themselves as "conservative" as well as those who are moderate or liberal, and carries non-evangelical GOP voters of all ideological stripes.

The Republican establishment sees Santorum defying mathematics, noting he would have to win a supermajority of the remaining delegates at stake to catch up to Romney's big lead in the only category that matters when it comes to getting the nomination in Tampa, Fla.

Santorum's strategists note he has been picking up delegates steadily in states that are still selecting them in county and state conventions, far from the television cameras, and they also hope to pick off many of Newt Gingrich's delegates if the Georgian does not qualify to be on the ballot in Tampa.

Romney let up on Santorum after his big win in Florida, electing to conserve resources and thus allowing the challenger to sweep to wins in mid-February in Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota. The well-funded front-runner won't make that mistake in Pennsylvania.

Already, TV ads and robocalls attacking Santorum for his record on spending issues in the Senate are flying in Pennsylvania, and there are sure to be more as the campaign goes for the knockout in the state Santorum represented in Congress. Already, Romney has scheduled a Wednesday evening campaign stop in Broomall, deep in the suburban Republican heart of Delaware County.

"The Romney campaign is committed to a serious air war and a ground game as well in Pennsylvania, and it's pretty clear that he is going to be nominated," said Alan Novak of Chester County, a former state GOP chairman and an early backer of Romney. "Rick Santorum probably should be looking for a graceful way to end his run."

Over the next three weeks, Santorum will campaign hard across the state, starting in his old congressional district outside Pittsburgh. He'll try to reach the evangelicals and very conservative voters who have propelled him to his 11 primary and caucus wins. These voters also stood with him when he lost to Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) by 17.4 percentage points in 2006.

A Quinnipiac University Poll released Tuesday showed a tight race among likely Pennsylvania primary voters, with Santorum leading Romney by 41 percent to 35. The poll, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points, was conducted from March 27 to Sunday.

In exit polls in Wisconsin, where Santorum spent eight of the last 10 days campaigning (and bowling), eight in 10 voters said they thought Romney would ultimately be the party's standard-bearer. Only a quarter of those who voted for Santorum thought he would get the nomination.

Still, in the Quinnipiac survey of Pennsylvania, 57 percent of likely GOP voters said they did not think Santorum should drop out yet. Party-elder advice be damned - it seems they want a voice.

All told, Santorum has enjoyed more success than even he thought he would in the GOP race, and it's understandable if he wants to defy an establishment that dismissed his chances from the beginning. He believes that he represents the true conservative heart of the party.

But many strategists say he eventually will have to weigh how long to continue the fight, especially if there is a risk of his losing Pennsylvania - and if he wants to run for president in the future.

"Rick Santorum is a smart politician who will not sacrifice the good of the party at the end of the day," said Washington-area Republican media consultant Mike Hudome, who is neutral in the race.

"He's going to be seen as conservative warrior who fought for what he believed in," Hudome said. "Rick has demonstrated an ability to connect with Republican voters and he's in a great position for another run."


Contact Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @tomfitzgerald. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.philly.com/bigtent.

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