Mitt Romney, bruised black and blue during a grueling three-month primary gauntlet, finally has a clear path to the Republican presidential nomination and a free pass to focus entirely on President Obama.
Rick Santorum’s sudden decision Tuesday to exit the GOP race was a best-case scenario for the Republican Party and for Santorum personally. His chances of capturing the GOP nomination had already dwindled to nothing, and he was facing the prospect of losing to Romney in his home state of Pennsylvania in two weeks.
“This decision is the right one for the good of the team and frankly, for Rick Santorum personally,” said Rick Wilson, a GOP strategist. “This is the right call.”
An ongoing primary, while not fatal to Romney, would nonetheless have been a hindrance as he tries to focus on the general election. The former Massachusetts governor had already emerged as the party’s inevitable nominee and had stopped attacking Santorum by name. But his campaign had its money and attention trained on Santorum, as evidenced by the nearly $3 million it was set to spend during the next two weeks in Pennsylvania. That’s money the Romney campaign now can save for the fall offensive against Obama.
Romney’s campaign already is facing a yawning financial and organizational disparity – not to mention a deficit in the polls – against Obama. Now the presumptive nominee can devote time to fundraising and start immediately to unite the party, particularly conservative evangelicals who have fueled Santorum’s campaign. He can move to repair his image among women, who are fueling Obama’s lead in national polls. And instead of waiting for the summer to build a robust ground game in key battleground states, an area in which the Obama campaign has already invested considerable resources, he can start now.
Romney becomes the party’s official leader now – not later – and after facing the prospect of a primary race continuing through June, party elders can breathe a sigh of relief.
The timing is equally beneficial to Santorum. Romney eclipsed Santorum in a trio of contests last week in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia – a sweep that underscored the near-impossible odds Santorum faced. And those primaries were just a preview of the dominance Romney is expected to demonstrate in five northeastern primaries on April 24.
In addition, influential conservative figures from Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have been urging Republicans to unite behind a candidate, and GOP voters were starting to believe that an extended primary was hurting the party. Even if Santorum had won a few remaining contests, the delegate math required to win the nomination had become all but impossible for the former Pennsylvania senator.
The political reality weighing heaviest on the Santorum campaign was the very real, if not likely, prospect he would lose his home-state Pennsylvania primary on April 24. Santorum promised that a Keystone State victory would resuscitate his campaign, but polls showed Romney was already neck-and-neck with him there. And that was before the Romney campaign launched a multimillion dollar ad buy against Santorum, potentially steamrolling him in a state where he served 12 years as a U.S. senator.
“Rick Santorum had two options,” Wilson said. “The honorable surrender where he gets to keep his sidearm, or the smoking radioactive hole.”
A defeat in Pennsylvania, where Santorum lost his Senate reelection campaign by 17 points in 2006, would have been humiliating and potentially damaged his political prospects permanently. Avoiding that loss preserves his political options – possibly even another run at the White House.
“Republican primary voters have tendency to look to the next person in line,” said Keith Appell, a conservative GOP strategist. “And in order to help burnish your credentials as that next person in line, you have do what Romney did four years ago, which was exit with power and grace.”
He added, “In the event Romney were to lose, Santorum would be well positioned to pick up the campaign ball again” in 2016.