What’s the price of loyalty? Mitt Romney hopes he can buy it for $2 million or more.
The GOP presidential front-runner’s two-week, multimillion-dollar TV ad buy in Pennsylvania -- the media equivalent of a nuclear bomb -- delivers a powerful message to Republican voters there: You might have supported Rick Santorum when he was your U.S. senator, but I want your vote now.
The over-the-air assault erases any remaining doubt that Romney is playing to win Santorum’s home state, and it makes clear that he sees the Keystone State’s April 24 primary as a chance to unequivocally end the GOP race. If Santorum has to win Pennsylvania’s contest to sustain his campaign – as he himself has said is necessary – he’ll have to do so despite being heavily outspent yet again.
“This blows through overkill and goes into blitzkrieg,” said Chris Nicholas, a longtime Pennsylvania Republican operative unaffiliated with either campaign. “Obviously, the Romney campaign is sending a message.”
The Romney ad purchase is as notable for its breadth as its depth – in addition to spending $1 million in the Philadelphia media market over the next two weeks, the campaign is also dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars on much smaller markets in Erie and Scranton. Such a purchase will saturate the airwaves there, according to Nicholas.
The staggering size of the buy has floored many Pennsylvania Republicans, even prompting concerns that smaller stations might not have enough time left over to air ads from other campaigns. Former Erie congressman Phil English, a Romney ally, called it “probably the most intense buy I’ve ever seen.”
“I think people will have an intimate feeling about Mitt Romney by the time this is over,” said English. He said the size of the buy indicates the campaign might have an eye on improving its position for the general election against President Obama, as well.
Before the purchase, the Romney camp had been careful to keep expectations in the state low. Romney, campaigning in Harrisburg last week, said Santorum should win his home state, just as Newt Gingrich claimed victory in Georgia and Romney prevailed in Michigan and Massachusetts. But that understatement belies Romney’s strength in a state with the type of well-educated, upscale GOP electorate that put him over the top in other states such as Ohio and Illinois.
The Romney campaign sees Pennsylvania as an opportunity to put a definitive end to the protracted primary. It's worth investing time and money now that the polls show a tight race, said Charlie Black, a Washington lobbyist advising the campaign.
"If Romney wins Pennsylvania, it's over,'' he said. "It wouldn't be fair for Rick Santorum to be treated as a serious candidate after that.''
Even if Santorum were to win the popular vote in Pennsylvania, Black said Romney would get the lion's share of support from the delegates to the convention, who will be chosen at later date. Most of those people are elected officials and party leaders who "are already for Romney or are going to be for Romney,'' he said.
Polls indicate the race is nearly a dead heat: The former Bay State governor trailed Santorum by only 6 points in Pennsylvania, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released last week. A Franklin & Marshall College survey reported he was behind by only 2 points. Both were conducted before Romney’s ad blitz.
Much to the frustration of the candidate and his allies, Santorum repeatedly has taken early leads in primary states only to watch them evaporate under a bomboardment of ads from Romney and Restore Our Future, the deep-pocketed super PAC that supports him. Santorum now faces a similar prospect in his home state.
“It’s the normal race that he’s seen in every state,” said Jake Corman, a state senator in Pennsylvania and a family friend of Santorum. “Polling has him ahead early and Romney comes in and carpet-bombs him until he falls behind. That’s what happens when you’re fighting against an endless stream of money.”
Corman said he hopes Santorum’s long-standing familiarity with the state’s GOP base will blunt the effectiveness of the negative ads. But as he heads into the next round of primaries, Santorum isn’t just fighting off TV ads – he’s also contending with the increasing sense that he is about to exit the race. A trio of defeats in Maryland, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C., last week sparked calls from many influential Republicans and media pundits that Santorum should end his campaign.
That has made fundraising difficult, Corman said during an interview with National Journal. He added that media speculation about Santorum's fate hasn't helped.
“Money is a key issue, and that’s where the frustration of your guys’ coverage comes into play -- because it’s hard to raise money when people are talking about you getting out,” he said.
Santorum allies, Corman included, emphasize both publicly and privately that the campaign has had no discussions about dropping out despite the endless speculation otherwise. Santorum's 3-year-old daughter, Bella, was hospitalized over the weekend, but the campaign put out a statement on Monday that she had begun recovering and that her father would return to the trail on Tuesday.
Beth Reinhard contributed.