Rick Santorum has announced his withdrawal from the Republican nomination contest, much to the relief of establishment Republicans. While Santorum came from far behind and put up a valiant battle, it was clear he had neither the financial nor organizational resources to stop Mitt Romney. But he does finish as the strongest conservative contender after the former Massachusetts governor, and this can only give him some leverage down the road.
Santorum’s voice was that of the social conservatives, arguably the most vociferous of the GOP rank and file. His voice was more authentic to the party’s base, despite the fact that his views carried little favor with the overall electorate.
He was able with few resources to win Iowa, and perform with aplomb in the other primaries and caucuses. In so doing, he portrayed himself as the most solid and reliable conservative in the race. Newt Gingrich may have tried to be the Romney alternative, but his past failings made him unreliable to the socially conservative base. Santorum was seen as one to be trusted.
Santorum, however, did little to help the Republican brand. If anything, his diatribes on the separation of Church and State were out of step with today’s political values. His battle against the contraception policy of the Obama Administration may have been framed as one in favor of religious freedom, but it only alienated women in general, and contributed to the GOP’s current challenge attracting women voters. Obama could only have wished for Santorum to stay in the race longer, as he was unconsciously becoming the president’s best ally.
As for Romney, Santorum made the former governor appear unsteady and too reactive. To a large extent, he attacked Romney more on content and values than the other candidates in the race did, and did some serious damage. As a result, Romney emerged more vulnerable to Obama attacks later in the campaign. Today, Mitt’s unfavorables are higher mostly because Santorum proved to be a far more effective and authentic campaigner. His withdrawal can only be good news for Mitt.
What next? Gingrich has all but conceded this past weekend. Santorum will eventually endorse Romney. Neither will be vice-presidential material, but they will both be making speeches at the convention in Tampa this summer. The hard right, made up of Tea Party types and social conservatives, will now use the party platform at the convention to make sure Romney does not re-morph into the “moderate” former Massachusetts Governor. You know, the one he (Mitt Romney) was pretending not to be and hoping we would forget.
Obama, ironically, comes out of the Republican exercise stronger. But Romney no longer has to fight on two fronts. He can now concentrate on Obama, in light of the sluggish economic picture, and try to make this election a referendum on the President. This in itself may appeal to independent voters and thus reduce the gap Obama has established in recent weeks.
So we can expect Romney to climb in the polls soon, but Santorum showed that Romney is not as strong as we all thought.
This, the Obama people have noticed as well.