Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The winner, Rick Santorum


TODAY IN Gettysburg, Pa., two weeks before a decisive primary in his home state, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum ended his quest for the Republican nomination and ensured himself of a future in the Republican Party.

Flanked by members of his family, with one notable exception, Santorum finally admitted how uphill his spirited but financially beleaguered battle for the nomination really was, and he did it with the same populist touch of class that animated much of his campaign.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we made the decision to get into this race at our kitchen table against all the odds, and we made the decision over the weekend that, while this presidential race for us is over — for me — and we will suspend our campaign effective today, we are not done fighting,” the candidate said Tuesday afternoon in Gettysburg at the Gettysburg Hotel, the same place he spoke last month on the night he lost the Illinois primary.

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Santorum has a sense of the moment of the occasion. He didn’t pick Gettysburg for no reason. “What I tried to bring to the battle was what Abraham Lincoln brought to this battlefield back in 1863, when he talked about this country being conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” Santorum said Tuesday.

Almost before he’d finished his speech, umpires of the conventional political metrics were couching Santorum’s concession in fatalistic terms. But Santorum’s measured, principled exit from this race gives him a leverage, an emotional leverage, that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney still can’t command after months on the campaign trail.

That proven ability to connect with voters makes Santorum the likely beneficiary of the same unwritten rule of GOP politics that Romney enjoys right now. Next time, it may be Santorum’s turn.

It’s possible to win by losing. Rick Santorum may have done exactly that.

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In previous primary contests, Santorum prevailed with an accessible, direct strategy of retail politics delivered by a candidate praised for connecting with voters in a personal way.

Kept aloft by winning the Iowa caucuses, and sweeping the Colorado and Missouri caucuses and the Minnesota primary, Santorum doubled down on an attack-dog strategy that alienated some voters and confused others. The former senator lately took up the cudgel of the divisive culture warrior when his up-by-the-bootstraps campaign message was working just fine.

The easygoing retail style of Santorum that prevailed in January — think “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”-era Jimmy Stewart in a sweater vest — morphed recently to an angrier politics. Calling President Obama a "snob" for advancing the renegade idea that Americans might want to enhance their horizons with pursuit of higher education. Saying that John F. Kennedy’s pledge to support separation of church and state made him want to “throw up.”

It all got ugly when Santorum snarled at a New York Times reporter, invoking the word “bullshit” with the cameras running.

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THAT MOMENT of vein-popping candor might have been nothing more than momentary if it didn’t reveal the building backstory of a candidate under pressure. Under pressure for some of the right reasons, one of them having to do with the family member who was never there on the stage behind him.

Santorum’s youngest daughter, Isabella Maria, was born with Trisomy 18, a rare genetic condition and one of the three most common chromosomal abnormalities. It is quite rare, occurring in roughly 1 out of every 8,000 live births, the Washington Post reported Tuesday. But it is a condition that children rarely survive.

Bella had contracted pneumonia in January and suffered another bout of that disease earlier this month; she was released from the hospital late Monday. Her willingness to fight, against the odds, suggests that tenacity is writ large on the Santorum family DNA.

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Santorum operatives went on the air to suggest that, despite the bitterness that’s built up between Santorum and Romney in recent months, Santorum will do the right thing and endorse Romney for the nomination in Tampa — with a clothes pin over his month if necessary.

More problematic for Santorum in the short term is how he’ll throttle back his own deep and passionate criticism of Romney in time to make nice on the convention floor. Like his partner in Romney scorn, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Santorum has made this personal, or just short of it.

In the four months between now and August, the challenge for Santorum and Gingrich is the same one facing the Republican Party as a whole: bridging the divide between one subwing of the party and another. Before the Republicans can begin to think about winning the White House, they have to be about winning over each other. That process begins now. Or at least it should.

Image credits: Santorum concession: Reuters/Mark Makela. Santorum shouts: CBS News. Santorum and daughter Bella: From Santorum 2012 Web site video.

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