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Santorum's exit is no boon for Romney

ElectionsMitt RomneyRick SantorumRepublican PartyExecutive BranchPneumonia

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's decision today to drop out of the presidential race leaves GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney with a clear path to his party's nomination but a rocky one to an eventual contest with President Barack Obama in the fall. Mr. Santorum, largely viewed as a fringe candidate until his surprising surge in the Iowa caucuses, has provided Mr. Romney with a much stiffer than expected challenge, and overcoming a strong competitor in the primaries has given the former Massachusetts governor an invaluable taste of the kind of battle he will face in the fall. But that benefit may be outweighed by the extent to which Mr. Santorum pulled Mr. Romney off of the economic message that had been central to his campaign and into social issues that play well in the primaries but not in the fall.

The end came more quickly for Mr. Santorum's campaign than had been expected. The next set of primaries include his home state, and his success or failure there was likely to determine whether he would have the support, financial and otherwise, to continue. Mindful of that, Mr. Romney and the super PAC supporting him have poured millions into the state. Meanwhile, Mr. Santorum was caring for his youngest daughter, Bella, who was born with a chromosomal disorder and had recently been hospitalized with pneumonia. It is unclear whether that played into his decision to suspend his campaign — it would certainly be understandable if it did — but the truth is that his lead in Pennsylvania had all but evaporated, and a defeat or even a close finish there would have intensified the pressure for him to drop out.

That leaves Mr. Romney with challenges from Newt Gingrich — who recently scaled back his campaign, even though he issued a statement shortly after Mr. Santorum's announcement seeking to peel off some of his supporters — and Ron Paul. Neither is likely to pose a serious challenge to Mr. Romney's ability to amass the delegates he needs to win the Republican nomination outright.

But then what? With the economy foremost in voters' minds, some Republicans, most notably Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, said the path to the White House for the GOP was a "truce" on social issues. Mr. Romney had seemed the most likely embodiment of that strategy; with a successful business career and a reputation as the Mr. Fix-it of the Salt Lake City Olympics, he could easily cast himself as a pragmatic leader rather than an ideologue.

Instead, Mr. Santorum's ability to energize the part of the Republican base that is primarily motivated by social issues forced Mr. Romney to spend far more time than he might have liked talking about birth control, gay rights and abortion. Even as he essentially sewed up the GOP nomination, Mr. Romney found his support in a head-to-head matchup with Mr. Obama plummeting, largely due to a sudden shift in women voters toward the incumbent president.

There is plenty of time for Mr. Romney to attempt to reposition himself, but the very nature of Mr. Santorum's campaign against him makes that effort perilous. Mr. Santorum spent the last several months criticizing Mr. Romney, with some success, as a weak candidate because he was an unreliable conservative. Any effort by Mr. Romney to move back toward the center only validates that narrative and contributes to a perception that he is a flip-flopper on the issues. That's unlikely to inspire the conservatives who backed Mr. Santorum or to appeal to independent voters.

The legacy of Mr. Santorum in this race is to make plain the depth of the divisions within the Republican Party. Mr. Romney is the kind of candidate that the party had traditionally rallied around, but in a GOP divided among social conservatives, libertarians, tea party members and establishment Republicans, that was simply impossible. The interests of the party may now be so diverse that it is impossible for one candidate to appeal to them all at the same time — a problem more often associated with the Democrats.

In announcing his decision, Mr. Santorum vowed that he is "not done fighting." Even if that fight is no longer with Mr. Romney (whom Mr. Santorum pointedly did not endorse in his speech suspending his campaign), the damage may already be done.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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ElectionsMitt RomneyRick SantorumRepublican PartyExecutive BranchPneumonia
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