Santorum Ponders the Path Forward

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Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum speaks at a campaign rally at Four Seasons Sheraton on April 3, 2012 in Mars, Pennsylvania.

Mark Halperin scoops that Rick Santorum is meeting today in northern Virginia with conservative leaders to discuss the road ahead. Halperin quotes a Santorum source pushing back against mounting speculation, driven partly by the indefatigable candidate’s decision to take an Easter break from the campaign trail, that Santorum may soon shelve his presidential bid. “He is not dropping out before Pennsylvania,” the source says.

Maybe not. But odds are he is considering it more seriously than he has let on. Santorum has every right to fight on and force Mitt Romney to play out the string. But he has a lot to lose by doing so, and very little to gain. 

The next three weeks are going to be a trial for Santorum. The chorus of Republicans urging him to step aside is getting louder. Even factions of the party who are tepid about Romney are eager to shift the focus to Obama. In the three weeks until the next set of primaries, the pressure on Santorum to bow out gracefully is going to build with each news cycle and each new Romney endorsement.

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To his credit, Santorum has never seemed particularly interested in the opinion of the party elders. In the aftermath of his losses this week, he put on a brave face and noted that in May, the calendar becomes more favorable. In the meantime, however, he runs the risk of an embarrassment. On April 24, five moderate Northeastern states will hold primaries. Santorum is favored in only one: Pennsylvania, the state he served in the Senate and the one he calls home (though he has, for some time now, been living in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.). Santorum has framed his home state as his firewall. But a new PPP survey released today finds him trailing Romney by five points. Romney is closing the massive advantages Santorum once enjoyed among Evangelicals (a 37-point edge has dwindled to 10) and Tea Partyers (among whom his 32-point cushion has been slashed to six). Only 36% of GOP voters say Santorum has a “realistic chance” at the nomination.

That’s not to say Santorum will lose Pennsylvania; another poll released Thursday has him up by four. But holding serve is not enough to catch up to Romney. Even if Santorum wins at home, as expected, he will fall farther behind the front-runner, who should clean up in New York (which has 95 delegates), Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware. Winning in May would be like chipping away in garbage time, and the final score doesn’t really matter.

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A loss at home would be a rough blow. Recall that Santorum was clobbered in his last statewide race, dropping the 2006 Senate contest by a whopping 18 points. “If he loses in his home state, he undoes all the good he did up until now, because the knock on him was he lost his homes state as Senator by a huge amount in 2006,” argued the conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer. That may be stretching things in an attempt to shove Santorum aside. But if he weighs the risks and rewards, Santorum may well decide to step away before a strong insurgent campaign devolves into a punch line.

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