Rick Santorum’s decision to suspend his campaign for the White House came both too early and too late.
It has long been clear that the former Pennsylvania senator could not amass the necessary number of delegates to secure the nomination, but his dogged determination to slog on despite the facts gave his quest a certain Quixotic nobility.
Santorum won 11 contests — none of them key states, and some of them by a whisker, but enough to show that there was a thirst in the Republican Party for someone with a little more personality, and conviction, than the too-smooth, anodyne frontrunner, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.
Now, with the polls in his home state showing that he could very likely suffer an embarrassing loss in a “must-win” contest, Santorum’s exit looks either like an uncharacteristic acknowledgement of reality or a cowardly refusal to face the consequences of his own rhetoric.
It could also be much more: Santorum’s failure to endorse his rival, who is now all but certain to clinch the nomination, could be just a sign of the enduring bad blood between the two men — the relic of a long and bitter battle.
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Or it could be that he is holding out for the No. 2 slot, as unlikely as that might appear at present.
Santorum could help Romney with the far right wing of the Republican Party, which questions the former Massachusetts governor’s commitment to conservative social values. Santorum also did well in the South, a place where Romney’s tone-deaf campaigning made him an object of ridicule.
In the meantime, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has jumped back into the race with both feet, dubbing his campaign “the last stand for conservatives” after Santorum’s exit.
Santorum had long been calling for Gingrich to step aside; the Georgia conservative was draining just enough votes away from Santorum to make it impossible for him to overtake the well-funded, supremely organized Romney.
Now Gingrich is rubbing his hands in glee at the prospect of sweeping Santorum’s voters — and delegates — into his waiting arms.
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Not so fast: Santorum is not giving anything away. According to the Republican National Committee count, Santorum has 202 “bound” delegates, who remain obligated to him due to his decision to “suspend” rather than end his campaign. He also has 50 or so unbound delegates, who can vote for anyone they choose at the national convention in August.
Unless and until Santorum explicitly releases his delegates — and he can hand them over to a specific candidate — they will have to vote for him in Tampa.
Nor is it at all likely that Santorum’s voters will turn en masse to Gingrich. Santorum attracts the rock-ribbed social conservatives, for whom family values reign supreme.
Gingrich, with his three wives and Tiffany’s credit line, hardly embodies the ideal. In conversation with conservatives, adjectives that come up often with regard to Gingrich are “sleazy,” “deplorable,” or “libertine.” That image will do him little good in any contest with the squeaky-clean Romney.
Romney has also shown that Gingrich is supremely vulnerable: after Gingrich’s surprise win in South Carolina — one of only two states the former Georgia congressman took — Romney unleashed a barrage of attack ads that stopped Gingrich cold. Gingrich may rail against the “elitist media” for derailing his candidacy, but he knows where to put the blame.
However, Gingrich’s stance on abortion may appeal to some who are not quite sure about Romney’s position on the issue.
When running for governor of the liberal state of Massachusetts in 2002, Romney reiterated his commitment to “a woman’s right to choose.” He now insists that he is an abortion foe, who was held hostage by his state’s liberal views, but his adviser’s Etch A Sketch utterances have already landed him in hot water.
Romney will be feeling comfortable these days. He can focus more on the general election in the all-important state primaries coming up soon: Pennsylvania, New York, Texas and California. He will undoubtedly carry the states, but turnout and overall enthusiasm will be an important bellwether for November.
Oh, wait, don’t forget Ron Paul, the libertarian gadfly. He continues to buzz around the campaign, with his non-interventionist message. He still wants to ban the Federal Reserve, bring the boys home from foreign adventures, and get us back on the gold standard.
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Paul has 45 delegates — only 26 of them “bound.” He has yet to win a state, although he did carry the US Virgin Islands. He also beat Gingrich in three of the four most recent contests — in Illinois, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia.
Perhaps Ron Paul will have his moment in the sun as the chief Republican challenger to Mitt Romney.