What’s Rick Santorum’s exit strategy – er plan to prevail?

Rick Santorum is falling farther and farther behind Mitt Romney in the Republican convention delegate count. To reverse that, he needs to win his home state of Pennsylvania and then the southern states that follow.

By , Staff writer

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    Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum greets supporters in Cranberry, Pa. Tuesday April 3. Santorum says his home state is a must-win for him to continue his presidential campaign.
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Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul seem to have dropped off the political map, struggling to win a Republican Party convention delegate here and there, but given no chance of winning the GOP presidential nomination.

But what of Rick Santorum?

He’s hanging on to second place. But he’s taken a shellacking in the last few primaries, falling even farther behind Mitt Romney, who keeps racking up more and more delegates (as well as endorsements) and an aura of “inevitability” among establishment Republicans.

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In Tuesday’s three primaries (Wisconsin, Maryland, and the District of Columbia) Romney won 88 delegates to Santorum’s 9.

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In a nutshell, Santorum’s survival strategy is to prevail in his home state of Pennsylvania April 24, then move into friendlier territory when southern states return to the primary scene in May (North Carolina, West Virginia, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Texas).

“In the minds of social conservatives, it’s not even close to over,” conservative Iowa radio host Steve Deace tells the Daily Beast’s Michelle Goldberg. “The real question is how committed someone like Rick Santorum is to fighting this out all the way to the end. If he’s committed to doing this on a personal level, there’s plenty of social conservatives that will ride him to the finish line.”

Well, maybe, and it’s a long shot to be sure.

After two terms in the US Senate, Santorum was chucked from office in 2006 – losing by more than 700,000 votes and 18 percentage points.

Santorum now claims to have a “strong base of support” in his home state, but others aren’t so sure.

“Rick Santorum is as unpopular in Pennsylvania today as he was six years ago when home-state voters kicked him out of the Senate in a rout,” writes the Associated Press’s Marc Levy from Gettysburg. “He failed to heal a rift with fiscal conservatives who had lost confidence in him or reassure party leaders that he could temper his hardline positions on social issues that repel the moderate and independent voters who are crucial to success in statewide elections in this diverse state.”

Evidence cited here?

A February poll by Muhlenberg College showed that nearly half the registered voters surveyed viewed him unfavorably. Just 39 percent saw him favorably. A March 28 poll by Franklin & Marshall College showed Santorum with 30 percent support to Romney's 28 percent among registered Republicans, a significant drop from the 29-point advantage Santorum enjoyed in February.

Recent polling shows Romney catching up to Santorum in Pennsylvania. The latest Real Clear Politics polling average has Santorum ahead by less than 2 percentage points. New York Times polling analyst Nate Silver gives Romney the edge over Santorum in Pennsylvania (51-49 percent chance of winning).

Publicly, Romney is positioning himself to come in a respectable second in Pennsylvania while also doing everything he can to win – including on-the-ground campaigning and major media buys.

Even if he ekes out a win in Pennsylvania on April 24, the rest of the day could add up to bad news for Santorum.

Romney is ahead by as much as 33 points in New York and 23 points in Connecticut, according to Qunnipiac polling.

On Thursday, Santorum met privately with conservative leaders to strategize how they might overcome Romney’s apparent momentum. Trying to get Gingrich to pull out was part of the discussion, but it may be past the point where that would help. Some surveys show Romney could pick up a substantial number of Gingrich supporters should the former House Speaker withdraw.

“Like halftime at a football game, you go into the locker room to gauge what has been working and what hasn't,” meeting participant Richard A. Viguerie, chairman of ConservativeHQ.com, said in a statement. “The Santorum campaign team recognizes that, because of Mitt Romney's money advantage and his support from the Republican establishment and the mainstream media, Rick has, to some extent, lost control of the narrative in the campaign. Like Ronald Reagan, he needs to go over the heads of the establishment and take his case directly to the voters.”

His next (and perhaps last) chance to do that is back home in Pennsylvania.

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