Romney struggles to put Santorum away

Rick Santorum is likely to keep giving Mitt Romney fits even if Romney wins Tuesday primaries in Wisconsin and Maryland and more Republican leaders rally to the front-runner, according to top Republicans.
 
“Romney is inching towards the number of delegates he needs, but he is not at a point where he’s hammered the nails in the coffin of Rick Santorum,” said Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, who hasn’t endorsed any of the candidates. “He’s failed to craft a compelling narrative … A win in Wisconsin puts Romney further down the road in the delegate count, but it’s not enough to close the deal.”
 

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Romney leads Santorum by wide margins in Maryland polls and has led in recent Wisconsin polls by 7 to 10 percentage points. Republican strategists expect that calls for Santorum to get out of the race will ratchet up in the next few weeks if he loses in Wisconsin, and both candidates indicated they expect Romney to win there: He will hold a victory rally in Milwaukee on Tuesday night, while Santorum will return to Pennsylvania.
 
But Santorum has made it clear he’ll continue on through the April 24 primaries, which include his home state of Pennsylvania as well as a number of states friendly to Romney: Connecticut, New York, Delaware and Rhode Island.
 
GOP strategists say it’s unlikely Santorum could be swayed by any Romney endorsements, and that unless Romney beats him in both Wisconsin and Pennsylvania the race could continue on through the end of May. Romney has fallen behind Obama in the polls, a sign the long and nasty primary is hurting his campaign.

“[Santorum] seems pretty adamant about continuing — I don’t know if another couple of bold-faced names endorsing are going to make a difference to him,” said Matt Mackowiak, an unaligned Republican strategist. “Romney’s had to spend $40 million on negative media the last few months that he could’ve spent building up his brand, driving his own message, building infrastructure. That may continue.”
 
If Santorum can hold on in Pennsylvania, the next few primaries could give him a much-needed boost, forcing Romney to keep spending money and time to defeat him rather than turning his attention toward President Obama.
 
“We’re moving forward,” Santorum said Sunday on Fox News. “The map in May looks good for us — Texas and Arkansas and West Virginia and North Carolina and Indiana, Kentucky … we are ahead in every poll in all of those states, and if you listen to the folk in the country, [they say,] ‘Stay in there, we need a conservative.’ ”
 
He flashed anger when asked about a poll showing a tight race in Pennsylvania, an indication of how important he views the state’s primary to be — he called the nonpartisan pollster a “Democratic hack” who has “singularly gotten more polls wrong than any person I know in the history of the state.”
 
Romney has already begun to spend money in Pennsylvania, an expensive state with multiple media markets. Santorum has already been on the ground there often — his campaign headquarters and home are in the state, and he’s returned there regularly during the campaign.
 
“If Santorum loses Pennsylvania, the noise will be deafening for him to get out,” said Blackwell.
 
But a Pennsylvania win might not be enough for Santorum to keep going: Gingrich’s campaign faded despite his winning his home state of Georgia.
 
“Calls for him to exit will ramp up after tomorrow and will be deafening if he loses Pennsylvania, but even if he wins there, they may be as well, because he can go and start winning again in May,” said Mackowiak. “What most people worry about now is anything that weakens Romney since he’s likely to be the nominee.”
 
The former Pennsylvania senator has been successful despite having almost no support within the Republican establishment or any well-known endorsers. This means that there are few power brokers who might be able to sway him to drop out — and the big-name religious conservatives who endorsed him after a January conference in Texas have shown no interest in playing that role.
 
“The people who coalesced around him in that Texas meeting, I talk to a good number of them regularly and nobody is talking about abandoning his candidacy, pressuring him to withdraw or anything close to that,” said former GOP presidential candidate Gary Bauer, a top social conservative backing Santorum. “I would [say to] my friends in Congress and the party infrastructure: Instead of trying to force others out of the race, maybe you need to go to the drawing board and try to figure out whether our front-runner can’t get the most committed conservatives.”
 
While Santorum has effectively downplayed Wisconsin’s importance, he will have to at least keep things close there and hope he has enough money to build a serious campaign in Pennsylvania.
 
“The biggest problem for Santorum is there’s a three-week lull, no way to break the media narrative that Romney has this sewn up and a continued race will only hurt the nominee,” Mackowiak said. “Santorum’s desperately trying to survive until May … The question’s going to be, when does the pressure become too much?”