The announcement Tuesday by Rick Santorum that he is suspending his presidential campaign comes as little surprise.
The former Pennsylvania senator was too far behind in the delegate count to lock in the nomination before the Republican convention in August, and the prospect of a contested convention had effectively vanished.
Mr. Santorum’s final hope – to win the Pennsylvania primary on April 24, giving his campaign new life – was also teetering on the edge. The latest polls showed likely nominee Mitt Romney within just a few percentage points of beating the native son, Santorum.
Now, Santorum comes out of the nomination race with a victory, of sorts. He entered the race nearly a year ago as a long-shot prospect, against many better-known personalities, and survived longer than just about anyone else in the race on a shoestring budget. Newt Gingrich effectively conceded on Sunday that Mr. Romney will be the nominee. Ron Paul, the other active candidate, is still promoting his iconoclastic brand of libertarian Republicanism, with no shot at the nomination, analysts say.
But after a weekend dominated by his disabled young daughter’s hospitalization and reports that Santorum was considering ending his bid, he emerged Tuesday ready to announce his next phase of public life.
“While this presidential race for us is over for me – and we will suspend our campaign effective today – we are not done fighting,” Santorum said in Gettysburg, Pa., his family at his side. “We are going to continue to fight for those voices, we are going to continue to fight for the Americans who stood up and gave us that air under our wings that allowed us to accomplish things that no political expert would have ever expected.”
Republican analysts applauded Santorum for exiting the race now, allowing Romney to put the nasty nomination race behind him, rebuild his image, and set his sights on defeating President Obama in November.
“Nobody ever thought Rick Santorum would get this far; he deserves our respect,” says Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist. “Yes, he hurt Romney’s favorables, but he made Romney a better candidate.”
Former House Speaker Gingrich taught Romney how to debate, and Santorum taught Romney how to think of more than just independents and establishment Republicans, Mr. O’Connell says.
Romney had entered the nomination as the presumed front-runner, but he struggled to connect with key elements of the Republican base – evangelicals, blue-collar voters, and the very conservative, including tea paryters. Santorum, best known as a strong social conservative, proved an adept and tireless campaigner, and he emerged as the conservative alternative to the more-moderate Romney.
By “suspending” now – effectively ending his bid – Santorum preserves his options for 2016 if Romney does not win in November, or 2020 if Romney does. It is oft-noted that in the modern era, the Republicans usually nominate a candidate who has run before. Santorum can now fashion himself to be the 21st century version of Ronald Reagan, who ran for the GOP nomination twice unsuccessfully before succeeding – and reaching the White House – in 1980.
And by leaving the race now, as opposed to waiting even a few more weeks, he has avoided burning his bridges to the Republican establishment and other elements of the party that might find cause to blame him if Romney loses in November. The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll shows Romney losing to Mr. Obama by 7 percentage points, with deep deficits among women and Latino voters, and major work to do on likability.
In his remarks, Santorum marveled at the journey he took as a candidate, and what he got out of the experience.
“At a time when over and over again we were told, ‘Forget it, you can’t win,’ we were winning,” he said. “We were winning in a very different way, because we were touching hearts, we were raising issues that frankly a lot of people didn’t want to have raised.”
For his efforts, Santorum won primaries and caucuses in 11 states, for 272 delegates, according to the Real Clear Politics count. Romney has 656 delegates so far, out of 1,144 needed for the nomination. In the vote count, Santorum has won 3.2 million to Romney’s 4.6 million.
Before Santorum stepped before the microphone to announce the end of his campaign, he reportedly called Romney to concede – though in his public remarks, he did not endorse Romney.
Romney issued a statement congratulating his former opponent.
“Senator Santorum is an able and worthy competitor, and I congratulate him on the campaign he ran,” Romney said. “He has proven himself to be an important voice in our party and in the nation. We both recognize that what is most important is putting the failures of the last three years behind us and setting America back on the path to prosperity.”