By Cameron Joseph - 04/06/12 10:00 AM EDT
Speculation that Rick Santorum could drop out of the presidential race soon is growing, and confusion among some campaign staffers has done little to dampen that view.
Santorum met Thursday with top conservatives to discuss what the campaign could do to right its course, a meeting his top aides insisted was about how to find a path to victory and not whether he should drop out.
Mitt Romney swept primaries in Maryland, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., on Tuesday and passed the halfway mark in the race to the 1,144 delegates needed to win the GOP nomination, although the Santorum campaign disputes the method most people are using to track the delegate count.
Speaking after Tuesday's contests, Santorum said he was in the race for the long haul and that the Republican contests were only half over.
"Pennsylvania and half the country have yet to be heard," he said. "We're here to make sure their voices will be heard in the next few months."
Five Eastern states will vote on April 24, including Santorum's home state of Pennsylvania.
A series of polls show Romney and Santorum neck-and-neck in the state where Santorum once held double-digit leads. In Connecticut, Delaware, New York and Rhode Island — the other states that vote the same day — the polls find Romney handily beating Santorum.
Republican strategists were mixed on whether Santorum was likely to get out before Pennsylvania — but all agreed a loss there would be devastating for his reputation.
“It he does lose there it really hurts his future beyond the 2012 cycle,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak.
Santorum has called his home state a must-win, but his team has not released its public schedule for campaigning in the Keystone State. His staff has said he will fundraising on Monday and campaign in the state Tuesday, although it has not announced specific events.
The seeming lack of a definitive plan has those on the inside wondering about the future. One top Republican strategist said he’d seen a surge of postings on Republican job boards from Santorum staffers, and two mid-level staffers told The Hill that top aides had gone radio silent.
One mid-level field staffer told The Hill that he’d been unable to reach his bosses since he’d flown to Pennsylvania following the Wisconsin primary and had received no direction about where to open field offices, or plans to build a ground game.
The campaign "has always been a little less organized than some other presidential campaigns but this is by far the worst I’ve ever seen it and it tells me there’s no plan for anything,” he said. “I’m sitting out here in Pennsylvania with my d--- in the wind with no idea of what’s going on … It’s the most disorganized thing I’ve ever seen and it leads me to the conclusion that he can’t continue and has no plans to.”
“We’d been receiving schedules and directives two weeks in advance, and now, nothing,” said another mid-level staffer who helps set up advance operations for the campaign. “All of a sudden I’m not hearing anything anymore. That gives me the sense that nothing’s happening in Pennsylvania and the reason they’re not bringing in more advance work is there’s no more advance to be done.”
In Butler County — Santorum’s home county — a number of the members of the county’s GOP committee have been trying to contact the national campaign to organize a rally for Santorum, but they haven’t heard back, said Jeff Smith, who chairs the Butler County Republican Committee.
“There’s a certain level of frustration from some of these people,” Smith said. “They really want to go out and do something for him.”
Santorum spokesman Hogan Gidley strongly denied the staffers’ reports and rejected the suggestion that there were signs the campaign was coming to a close, although when asked if the campaign had bought air time in the state, he pled ignorance.
“We’re not going anywhere,” he said. “It’s halftime. We’ve got a long way to go here. The road is narrow and tough but it starts in Pennsylvania. We can win there and if we win there we’re in great shape for May.”
Gidley said the meeting between Santorum and other anti-Romney conservatives had been a big-picture strategy meeting on how to unite the conservative base against Romney. Two other people at the meeting said it was a sober look at what could be changed to right the campaign, but that everyone in the room wanted to continue on.
“It was a strategy session on what steps he needs to take to prevail,” said former Focus on the Family head and presidential candidate Gary Bauer.
“I think everybody in the meeting was convinced we can do this as a path forward,” said Richard Viguerie, a conservative marketing expert who led the meeting. “We focused on big, bold, new ideas. We recognize we can’t just keep doing what we’ve been doing and expect different results.”
Viguerie told The Hill to expect “a bold new campaign” in the next week to 10 days that would change how Santorum’s message was delivered, although he declined to discuss what ways the campaign might be altered.
“One of the problems we’ve had is we’ve mostly lost control of the narrative because of Romney’s money, the mainstream media and the Republican establishment, and that’s the narrative that the election is over with and Romney is the nominee. We’ve got to change the narrative, and discussed at great length today how we do that,” he said.
If Santorum’s campaign has put on hold detailed campaign schedules while it revamps its approach, that could explain why the mid-level staffers had been left in the dark. But one disagreed with Gidley’s assessment that the campaign had a full campaign schedule planned.
“It’s a facade — he may be doing events but there’s no real aggressive operation here. It’s nothing like we’ve conducted in other states,” he said.
Gidley questioned whether those mid-level staffers were telling the truth.
“We have never put things out two weeks ahead of time, ever — we never tell people where things are going until they’re set in stone,” he said.
A super-PAC that backs Santorum told The Hill that it had not yet made plans to buy television advertising in the states. Although, because super-PACs can’t coordinate with the campaign, they might be just waiting to see what signals Santorum sends in coming days about messaging.
—Josh Lederman and Daniel Strauss contributed to this story.