Primary Closure: Santorum Suspends His Campaign of Miracles

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Mark Makela / Reuters

Rick Santorum announces the suspension of his bid to win the Republican presidential nomination during a news conference in Gettysburg, Pa., on April 10, 2012

Standing before a bank of cameras at a hastily called press conference in Gettysburg, Pa., on Tuesday, April 10, Rick Santorum spoke about miracles. As he often does, he spoke about his faith in God and about his family, especially his disabled 3-year-old daughter Bella, recently out of the hospital after a weekend health scare. But the miracle reporters were there to hear about was his unlikely presidential campaign, which came closer than anyone else’s to toppling the Goliath that is Mitt Romney’s candidacy. That miracle, Santorum said, was at an end.

“We made a decision over the weekend that while this presidential race for us is over, for me, and we will suspend our campaign today, we are not done fighting,” he said.

It really is over. With his exit, Santorum ended what little suspense remained in the Republican presidential race, assuring beyond all shadow of a doubt that Romney will be the Republican Party’s nominee in November. A stalwart Catholic and staunch social conservative, Santorum attracted the antipathy of liberals and the devotion of the Christian Right like no one else in the race. His rural, evangelical appeal and forceful questioning of Romney’s conservative credentials won him second place, proving that the religious wing of the GOP still wields clout. But his out-of-nowhere success also illustrated that a large section of the party was simply looking for someone, anyone, who wasn’t Romney.

(PHOTOS: The Life and Career of Rick Santorum)

“Miracle after miracle, this race was as improbable as any race you have seen for President,” Santorum said Tuesday. “Against all odds, we won 11 states, millions of voters, millions of votes.”

Santorum’s rise to become Romney’s primary conservative foil really was an unlikely one. Overlooked as a series of briefly incandescent challengers burst into the lead in late 2011, the former Senator lacked the entourage of consultants and car-chase coverage that attended the flashier candidates. But he did the yeoman’s work of a traditional Iowa campaign, crisscrossing the state’s 99 counties in a pickup truck to press the flesh in scores of rural hamlets. Most of the state’s social-conservative elders never endorsed him, but their flocks did: after a late peak in the polls, Santorum effectively tied Romney in the Iowa caucuses on the strength of his evangelical support.

The contest was initially called for Romney by only eight votes, and it wasn’t until weeks later that Santorum was certified as the winner, denying him any momentum he might have gained from the electorally meaningless but psychologically important victory. That stroke of bad luck was followed by a series of blunders: he wasted time and money in New Hampshire, arrived in South Carolina too late and was almost forgotten by Florida. He failed to get on the ballot in Virginia and flitted from state to state without any real campaign infrastructure. But again, Santorum showed his ability to surprise. On Feb. 7, he swept caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado as well as a beauty-pageant primary in Missouri, stunning Romney and giving the primary an extra taste of the suspense it has mostly lacked.

The race has been all but over since Romney won primaries in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia on April 3. After a few close losses in the Midwest and marginal wins in the South, Santorum’s campaign became an effort to deny Romney a majority of delegates, not win one himself. Santorum was also was faced with a tightening race in his home state of Pennsylvania, where residents will vote on April 24, and the possibility of a loss there was increasing. He was ejected from the Senate in a brutal 2006 landslide; the 2012 primary race was his chance at professional redemption, and it’s likely he didn’t want to replay that painful history.

Richard Land, leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, explained the rationale for Santorum’s exit in an interview with TIME on Tuesday morning before the news broke. “Rick’s a friend. And if he called me and asked me for advice, I would tell him that I would advise him to get out. He has resurrected a moribund career. I don’t think anybody thought he could do what he has done. He has become a major figure in the party. In eight years, he will be three years younger than Romney is now. He risks damaging that if he loses his home state again, and he could … If he lost Pennsylvania, it would undo a lot of the good he has done himself and his influence within the party.”

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, another exiled politician on a redemptive journey through the Republican primary, offered a study in contrast. “I am committed to staying in this race all the way to Tampa so that the conservative movement has a real choice,” Gingrich, who has no real chance at winning the nomination, said in a statement following Santorum’s announcement. His slight was directed at Romney.

While Santorum did not mention the prohibitive nominee Tuesday, his decision to step aside now, which will save Romney millions in campaign funds, is a sign that he may soon rally to the front runner’s cause. “This game is a long, long, long way from over,” he said. “We will continue to go out and fight and defeat President Barack Obama.” No one has been a fiercer critic of Romney than Santorum. But an endorsement isn’t so far-fetched. After all, miracles do happen.

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