Expected Louisiana win may be a hollow victory for Santorum

Rick Santorum is likely to win Louisiana’s Saturday primary but a victory there won’t help him much, say Republican strategists.

“Winning Louisiana does nothing in the grand scheme of things,” said GOP strategist Tyler Harber. “It won’t give a huge boost of support to Rick Santorum. Winning these contests isn’t as important. It’s now about winning the delegates.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Santorum has been barnstorming the state, and the super-PAC backing him has spent nearly a half million dollars there. But because Louisiana awards its delegates on a proportional basis, a Santorum win is likely to be a qualified one.

The front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, Mitt Romney, has set expectations low in Louisiana, campaigning there for just one day.

Romney’ campaign has also spent almost no money on the state, and the pro-Romney super-PAC that has deluged Santorum in other states put just $151,000 into Louisiana in the last ten days.

While a Santorum win in the state is unlikely to help his campaign in the long term, a Romney loss could lead to renewed questions about his struggles to appeal to the GOP base, especially Evangelical Christians, Tea Party supporters and southerners.

“A win in Louisiana for Santorum will probably not change the dynamic of the race but it will stall some of the momentum Romney has built the last week,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. “Romney has a way of taking two steps forward and one step back...this will renew questions about him not being able to win in the South and put Santorum away. If Santorum keeps winning states it’s hard to make the case he needs to get out.”

Since Tuesday’s Illinois primary Romney has kept a light public schedule, making one appearance in Maryland, which will vote on April 3, and a handful in Louisiana on Friday.


He has focused instead on behind-the-scenes work to solidify right-wing support and raise money. On Thursday Romney was in Washington, D.C. meeting with top conservatives including Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a Tea Party favorite.

After the meeting, DeMint praised Romney. “I'm not only comfortable with Romney, I'm excited about the possibility of him possibly being our nominee,” he said, although he stopped short of an endorsement.

Romney also announced the support of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), one of the most powerful establishment Republicans. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), another Tea Party favorite and a foe of Santorum’s ever since Santorum opposed his 2004 Senate campaign, also praised Romney on Friday, saying he is “absolutely committed to the principles of limited government” and will “govern as a conservative” if elected.

But a comment from Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom put a damper on an otherwise successful week while trying to explain that the campaign would have a “reset button.”

“"Everything changes [after the primary],” Fehrnstrom said. "It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again."

The “Etch A Sketch” comment was lampooned by both Democrats and Romney’s Republican rivals — Santorum and Newt Gingrich gleefully brought the toys on the campaign trail, and the Democratic National Committee released a pair of web ads making fun of Romney for it.

One other factor in Louisiana is how well Newt Gingrich does. If he finishes so poorly that his super-PAC fundraising dries up, he could be left unable to compete going forward. But Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina Republican Party chairman who is with Gingrich’s super-PAC, said that wouldn’t be a problem.

“We have the money, the super-PAC has the money,” he told The Hill Friday.

When asked how much money was left and where they planned to spend it, Dawson laughed. “That’s sort of like Patton telling Rommel where they’re going to park the tanks,” he said. “But I can say we’ll have the gas to fuel them.”

A number of people close to Gingrich told The Hill he had no mind to drop out, even if he finished poorly in Louisiana, a southern state which offers him one of his best shots at regaining his footing in the race. Gingrich has been in third place, behind Romney, in recent polls of the state.

“We’re watching the delegate count — we’re not worried about momentum,” said former Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.), a Gingrich surrogate. “I’ve been in meetings with everyone from the lowest to highest [advisors] in the campaign, and there’s never been one word mentioned about Gingrich getting out of this race.”

Assuming Santorum wins Louisiana, he will have a tough road ahead. The primary calendar slows down in April and most of the upcoming states are friendly to Romney, making Wisconsin’s April 3 primary and the April 24 Pennsylvania primary crucial for Santorum.

“If Romney wins Wisconsin the calls for Santorum to get out are going to be deafening, from all corners of the party,” said Mackowiak. “The path is so narrow for Sanoturm now he’s got to basically get an inside straight to go on.”