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Santorum has few chances left to stop Romney
March 21, 2012 / 10:06 PM / 6 years ago

Santorum has few chances left to stop Romney

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum signs placards as he greets supporters at a Get Out The Vote rally in Mandeville, Louisiana March 21, 2012. Louisiana's primary will be held on Saturday March 24th. REUTERS/Sean Gardner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Rick Santorum is running out of time and opportunities to stop front-runner Mitt Romney’s slow, grinding march to the Republican presidential nomination.

Romney’s convincing rout of Santorum in Illinois on Tuesday, along with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s endorsement of Romney on Wednesday, were a one-two punch that intensified questions about how long Santorum can keep his conservative campaign alive.

Romney’s Illinois win widened an already daunting lead in delegates, and Bush’s endorsement could signal that those party leaders who have been sitting out the nominating battle might be ready to begin coalescing around Romney.

Santorum needs a win in conservative Louisiana on Saturday and a breakthrough victory in the Midwestern battleground of Wisconsin on April 3 to have a chance at changing the race’s course and casting doubt on Romney’s inevitability.

Otherwise, pressure will mount for him to pull the plug on his White House bid and help the party rally around Romney as the challenger to President Barack Obama in the November 6 general election.

“I sense that Republicans in general are ready for the campaign to come to a close,” said Steve Grubbs, a former state party chairman in Iowa. “Unless Santorum does something significant, the momentum is really going to shift to Romney in the next two or three weeks.”

Romney has more than a 2-to-1 advantage over Santorum in the race for the 1,144 delegates needed for the nomination, and simple math gives Santorum little chance of catching the former Massachusetts governor in the remaining contests.

But Santorum has pinned his hopes on winning just enough to keep Romney from clinching the nomination before the state contests end in June, leaving the choice up for grabs among the mostly conservative delegates who will attend the August convention in Tampa, Florida.

Many Republicans view that as a far-fetched scenario.

“That’s fantasy. It’s overstated. Santorum is not going to be the nominee,” Republican strategist John Feehery said of the open convention idea. “He’s not ready to give up, but my guess is he’ll get there. We just don’t know when.”

Santorum, a staunch social conservative and a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, has been aided in his campaign by Romney’s difficulty in winning the trust of hard-core conservatives and connecting with blue-collar voters.

Until Romney can prove he is making headway with those groups, Santorum and his fellow conservative candidate Newt Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker, will have little incentive to get out of the race.

‘NOT THERE YET’

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum holds up an "Etch-a-sketch" while addressing supporters at a "Get Out The Vote" rally in Mandeville, Louisiana March 21, 2012. REUTERS/Sean Gardner

“It will be obvious to Republicans when Governor Romney has got victory in his sights and has passed all the tests. We’re not there yet,” said Katon Dawson, a former state party chairman in South Carolina who is now backing Gingrich.

“The establishment wants this over with, but it’s not their choice. There are some other states to be heard,” he said. “When you see the end in your sights, that’s when you cut a deal.”

The endgame for Santorum could include a commitment for a prominent spot in a Romney administration or a major speaking slot at the convention, or an agreement to place some of his key conservative principles in the party platform, Republicans said.

“For him this has always been more than a campaign. It’s kind of a mission,” Feehery said.

On Tuesday night, Santorum emphasized the upcoming contests in Louisiana, Wisconsin and his home state of Pennsylvania on April 24, making it clear those were his next priorities.

Slideshow (2 Images)

He urged supporters to “saddle up” for a long fight, but a loss in Pennsylvania or bad defeats in the other four Northeastern states voting on April 24 - New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware - could hasten the end.

Santorum, who lost his Senate re-election bid in Pennsylvania in 2006 by a whopping 18 percentage points, could be aiming for some degree of vindication with a victory in his home state before he calls it quits.

“I think April is a pretty big month. If conservatives are still wary of Governor Romney, April will show it,” Dawson said.

While endorsing Romney, Bush said it was time for Republicans to end the primary fight and unite behind Romney to “take our message of fiscal conservatism and job creation to all voters this fall.”

But the results in Illinois showed conservatives and blue-collar voters are still having trouble accepting Romney. It was the state’s demographics that helped him to victory.

While Romney lost among Illinois voters who said they were evangelical, very conservative or made less than $50,000 a year, those blocs accounted for a smaller proportion of the electorate than in other states where Romney lost.

Conservatives were reminded of their doubts about Romney’s political convictions again on Wednesday when adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said Romney would not be bound to his most conservative stances once he enters the general election against Obama.

“I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again,” Fehrnstrom told CNN.

Santorum jumped on the comment quickly, telling a Louisiana crowd that Romney “is going to be a completely new candidate” in the general election. On Twitter, Gingrich called Etch A Sketch “a great toy but a losing strategy.”

Editing by Alistair Bell; Desking by Lisa Shumaker

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