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What Santorum’s Exit Means for Romney

April 13, 2012

Originally published in Aspenia Online of the Aspen Institute Italia

Rick Santorum’s decision to call off his bid for the White House put an end to the Republican primary season in all but name. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul have pledged to stay in the race until the party convention this summer but they are no longer real threats to Mitt Romney. The former Governor of Massachusetts is now breathing a sigh of relief. Always considered the “inevitable” GOP nominee, he struggled harder and emerged far more bruised from the primary battlefield than anybody would have predicted at the start of the campaign a year ago. No candidate did more to challenge, but also potentially help, Romney than Santorum.

The former Senator from Pennsylvania entered the race for the White House as a second-tier candidate. He was poorly funded, viewed by many as too conservative on social issues to appeal to key independent voters, and had badly lost his last political campaign – when he ran for reelection for his Pennsylvania Senate seat in 2006. Yet, thanks to an earnest grassroots campaign and a more consistent political persona than his rivals’, Santorum managed to succeed where everybody else failed. He waited it out as other challengers for the GOP nomination (from Michele Bachmann to Herman Cain) rose in the polls and then suddenly crashed. Crafting himself as the true champion of conservative causes, he became the most serious contender for the party crown after Romney.

Although it wasn’t he who initiated the anti-Romney mobilization of the Republican right, he certainly built on it more effectively than those who attempted it before him, giving these sentiments a more credible and respectable voice. Santorum’s blue-collar background (although a near-millionaire himself, he managed to project a convincing image as an ordinary American), large traditional family and less than flashy lifestyle gave substance to his populist economic message and to his conservative credentials. He spoke to the disillusioned white working class and to concerned Evangelical Christians far more successfully than, for example, thrice married, once converted and quasi-lobbyist Newt Gingrich.

By doing so, Santorum was also the one who more effectively defied Romney’s sense of entitlement in this race. He became at once Romney’s mirror image and populist conscience. In the eyes of GOP primary-goers, he was the workingman fighting an unequal battle against the multi-millionaire and he was the true conservative hero defending faith and tradition from the attacks of the flip-flopper, “etch-a-sketch” Massachusetts moderate.

On the whole, Santorum’s campaign strategy helped expose Romney’s weak flank with religious conservatives. It poked holes in the former Governor’s appearance of robot-like perfection and infallibility, called his integrity into question and made a joke of his detached, rich man habits and attitudes.

On the bright side for Romney, Santorum taught him invaluable lessons that will come in handy as he goes head-to-head against President Barack Obama. For example, to loosen up his style, stick to one and only one campaign message and not to mess with Evangelical Christians.

In the end, Santorum deserves credit for taking his campaign farther than anybody expected. Even his White House bid, however, came to a natural end – one that awaits all Republicans running by and large on a platform of social conservatism. Santorum now looks at a bright future in GOP national politics. He could aim for a cabinet-level position in an eventual Romney government or try again for the White House as a stronger candidate in 2016. In any case, he will be able to exercise significant influence in Republican circles, especially with the conservative wing of the party and with regard to the social issues he so cares about and he so prominently featured, at the cost of becoming a more divisive candidate, during his campaign.

As for Romney, he needs to square the circle and doesn’t have much time to do so. During the primaries, he was forced far more to the right than he hoped for or than he is comfortable with, especially on social issues, and he is now left to pick up the pieces of a few contradictory goals. He must rally the Christian right and make sure Evangelical Christians turn out to vote for him in November. He must also reconcile with women, whom he somewhat lost in the midst of a heated debate on contraception and women’s health, and independent voters, who might have been partially put off by his increasingly conservative message.

Having all but sealed the deal for the nomination, at least Romney can finally devote all his money and resources to attacking President Obama and uniting the Republican Party after a contentious primary season. Whatever useful lessons Santorum might have taught him, Romney is probably glad the teaching is over.

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