MAYBE HE'S just getting tired. Maybe he’s had one too many club sandwiches in one too many rooms with a safe and an ironing board in the closet. There’s something that’s had Rick Santorum royally pissed off for about the last two weeks — but in truth, it’s probably an accretion of somethings, events plural, big and small, public and private … and a weariness with the growing perception that the Santorum 2012 bid for the presidency is, practically if not officially, over.
Call it so. There’s an abundance of evidence. The delegate math for the former Pennsylvania senator has been prohibitive from the start, but never mind that. You can make the case that the Santorum quest for the White House has been dead as fried chicken since the evening of March 19, in Moline, Ill.
That was when and where Santorum said the following, with a perfectly straight face:
“We need a candidate who’s gonna be a fighter for freedom, who’s gonna get up and make that the central theme in this race, because it is the central issue in this race. I don’t care what the unemployment rate is going to be. It doesn't matter to me. My campaign doesn't hinge on unemployment rates and growth rates,” the candidate said en route to a bruising loss to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
For those reasons alone, Santorum has almost certainly conveyed to Romney the Republican nomination.
But you can’t tell a sleepwalker he’s sleepwalking.
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BY THIS point, Santorum apparently couldn’t help himself. Just days later, at a March 22 rally in San Antonio, Santorum truly jumped the twin sharks of party identity and party loyalty, suggesting that the status quo in Washington is preferable to Romney in the White House.
"You win by giving people a choice,” he said. “You win by giving people the opportunity to see a different vision for our country, not someone who's just going to be a little different than the person in there," he said. “If you're going to be a little different, we might as well stay with what we have instead of taking a risk with what may be the Etch A Sketch candidate of the future."
The walkback was almost immediate. “What he was talking about was that they're just so similar. You've got to have differences to motivate people to vote," Santorum spokesman Hogan Gidley told Yahoo News. "If there's virtually no difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, chances are they won't go out and vote.”
Then from bad to worse. On March 25, at another campaign rally, Santorum called Romney “the worst Republican in the country, the worst” for confronting the challenges of the Obama agenda.
Later that day, he responded poorly when questioned about it by Jeff Zeleny of The New York Times.
Santorum, forehead bearing the high sheen of perspiration, responded testily: “What speech did you listen to? Stop lying! Would you guys quit distorting what I’m saying? ... Quit distorting our words. If I see it, it's bullshit. C'mon, man. What are you doing?”
He doubled down on that explosion the next day. “I don't regret taking on a New York Times reporter who was out of line,” he said. "If you're a conservative and you haven't taken on a New York Times reporter, you're not worth your salt as far as I'm concerned.”
“Rick Santorum is becoming more desperate and angry and unhinged every day,” Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said to The Associated Press. “He sees conservatives coalescing around Mitt Romney and he's rattled by the backlash caused by his suggestion that keeping Barack Obama would be better than electing a Republican.”
A consultant who worked on John McCain's 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns told Newser.com that “[t]he lashing out at the media and grasping at straws are indicators we've entered the walking dead period.”
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“Santorum has done a great job of making first downs on fourth and seventeen plays,” said Steve Schmidt, who managed McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, also to The Post. “His next fourth down play is in Wisconsin.”
If you believe the candidate, it won’t be his last. On Sunday, two days before the Wisconsin primary, Santorum said he’d only quit the race if Mitt Romney gathered the 1,144 delegates needed to lock down the Republican nomination.
“If Governor Romney gets that required number, then without a doubt, if he's at that number, we'll step aside," Santorum said on NBC's “Meet the Press.” “But right now, he's not there. He's not even close to it. Like I said, less than half of the delegates have been selected. We've got a long way to go.”
CBS News reported recently that Romney has an estimated 554 delegates so far, while Santorum has an estimated 241.
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IT'S A GIVEN that Santorum stays in the race until April 24. He can’t bail before taking the pulse of his own home state. It just isn’t done. And the timing of that primary may be some kind of a face-saving grace.
Bethg1841, commenting at The Washington Post: “When it becomes about Santorum rather than the GOP presidential candidate, it's time to get out. He has made the mistake that Gingrich has by turning the race into what appears to be a vendetta against Romney.”
There’s been some thought about what it would take — what incentive? What consolation prize? — to get Santorum to take his battered ball and go home, and sooner rather than later. “If Santorum runs a principled campaign and then concedes graciously, then he has a big future ahead,” said Schmidt. “If he runs a character campaign attacking Romney, then Santorum’s future is more limited.”
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Barbour told The Post that by walking away now, Santorum “would preserve the most options for him — serving in a Romney presidency officially or unofficially or possibly running again one day.”
That may be the big plus for Santorum, and at this point, the only one he has left. By bowing from the field of battle, by making the dignified climbdown, Santorum will have strong cards to play in 2016 or later. That’s when he could come roaring back, not exactly as an elder statesman but certainly not as a newcomer to the pursuit of the nomination. Having that on-the-road experience, that taste for campaign blood gets you points in the Republican Party.
Santorum could ask Mitt Romney about that. Romney is where he is now, at least in part, because of that unwritten but long-held Republican rule that the candidate who goes down with a touch of class gets another chance. There’s no reason why Santorum — with several big states in his corner during the primaries, and a proven ability to connect with voters — shouldn’t get the same reception. Down the road apiece.
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IT ALL comes down to Santorum’s tolerance for punishment, and not just the kind he gets from voters at the polls. There are signs that the Santorum 2012 campaign may have hit the wall financially.
Back in January, interviewed on ABC’s “Good Morning America” in the headier days of January, Santorum said “I’d say we’ve done this on shoestrings, but that would be insulting to shoestrings.”
A nice line. But facts are facts: Having been outspent by Romney by orders of magnitude — one recent estimate of Wisconsin ad buys had Romney outspending Santorum by 55 to 1 — Santorum’s campaign isn’t surviving on a shoestring. This is a campaign running on fumes and desperately trying to make it to the next gas station to get just enough fuel in the tank to power its way to . . . the next gas station.
Oh, the former senator got some chump change from aspirin evangelist and multimillionaire Foster Friess, but that didn’t last long in the cash-flow blast furnace of a top-flight campaign operation.
But the Santorum campaign is being torpedoed in slow motion by the candidate himself as much as anyone or anything else. It’s starting to come a cropper for the boy wonder of the Republican race for the nomination. The primaries in Wisconsin and Maryland crank up on Tuesday, exactly three weeks before Pennsylvania’s on April 24.
There are miles to go, and club sandwiches to eat, before he sleeps.
Image credits: Santorum shouts: CBS News. Santorum at rally I: MSNBC. Santorum at rally II (Tacoma, Wash.): KING5, Seattle NBC News affiliate.