Santorum exits GOP presidential race, clears way for Romney nomination

Rick Santorum’s exit from the presidential race on Tuesday essentially guaranteed Mitt Romney the Republican nomination and began the general-election phase of the campaign.

The move, which came after a string of Romney primary wins and amid growing calls from the party for the former Pennsylvania senator to throw in the towel, also increased Santorum’s standing within the party.

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His campaign beat expectations, winning 11 states, but by making the announcement when he did, Santorum came across as a team player willing to do what’s best for the party.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus was quick to praise Santorum’s decision.

“He has decided to put his country, party and desire to defeat President Obama ahead of any personal ambition,” Priebus said in a statement.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) remain in the race but are unlikely to catch Romney in the delegate count.

Even so, both made a play for Santorum’s supporters.

“I am committed to staying in this race all the way to Tampa so that the conservative movement has a real choice,” Gingrich said in a statement Tuesday evening. “I humbly ask Sen. Santorum’s supporters to visit Newt.org to review my conservative record and join us as we bring these values to Tampa.”


“Dr. Paul is now the last — and real — conservative alternative to Mitt Romney,” said Jesse Benton, the campaign’s chairman, in a statement. “We plan to continue running hard, secure delegates and press the fight for limited, constitutional government in Tampa.”

Even Romney acknowledged the importance of Santorum’s decision.

“This has been a good day for me,” he said at a campaign event in Pennsylvania Tuesday evening.

Romney is most likely to benefit from Santorum dropping out, according to Republican strategist Rich Galen. 

“A significant number [of Santorum supporters] will go to Romney; I don’t think they’ll go to Gingrich,” Galen said.

GOP strategist Ford O’Connell argued that Santorum’s withdrawal had further weakened Gingrich since Romney can now afford to ignore him rather than try to negotiate with him to get out.

“Gingrich has effectively become fully irrelevant,” he said.

Before the speech, Santorum called Romney to inform the former Massachusetts governor he was suspending his campaign, but he did not mention Romney in his announcement or offer an endorsement.

Romney has requested a sit-down with the former senator to discuss the matter, according to Santorum communications director Hogan Gidley, who did not indicate when or even if that meeting would be held.

But Romney might need Santorum more than Santorum needs Romney. The former Pennsylvania senator is a favorite of conservatives, many of whom view Romney with suspicion.

Bob Vander Plaats, a powerful Iowa social conservative whose endorsement helped Santorum win in that state, made it clear he was still unhappy with Romney.

“He now needs to shore up his base if he wants to win a state like Iowa,” Vander Plaats said. “It’s not enough to have us just vote against Obama — he needs to mobilize us and make sure the grass roots comes out, or he’s not going to win. If he now pivots to the center and goes into Etch A Sketch mode, that would be a real issue for the Romney campaign to be president.”

Vander Plaats said he would talk to Santorum — and to Gingrich — before deciding if he’d endorse anyone else, and said he thought Gingrich should stay in the race until the end.

Santorum made his announcement in his home state of Pennsylvania — his first public appearance following the release of his daughter, Bella,  from the hospital.

The state was considered a must-win for Santorum’s campaign, but polls showed Romney in the lead. By exiting before the April 24 primary, Santorum spared himself the potential embarrassment of a loss on his home turf.

Looking tired and at times appearing to hold back tears, Santorum referenced his daughter’s illness, but did not offer a specific reason why he was leaving the race.

“While this presidential race is over for me, and we will suspend our campaign today, we are not done fighting,” he said from Gettysburg, Pa., flanked by his family.

Santorum comes away from the campaign with some political cachet, strategists say.

He has proven he’s an appealing character within the conservative movement and, therefore, someone who represents an influential wing of the GOP. He could leverage that into a prominent media role or another run for office. 

Galen said Santorum is unlikely to be a sort of Mike Huckabee figure. The former Arkansas governor earned himself a radio show and became a TV host following his 2008 presidential bid.

Huckabee’s “got a completely different personality from Rick Santorum, so the notion that he’s going to somehow end up on his own TV [show] is unlikely,” Galen said. “He could write a book about this.”

Santorum could also ask for a speaking slot at the GOP convention in Tampa this August and for help paying off his campaign debt.

O’Connell said Santorum had greatly enhanced his standing in the party — but whether that will be a role in Romney’s administration or as a spokesman for religious conservatives remains to be seen.

“By gracefully exiting and being a team player, Santorum preserves a bright political future,” he said. “He’s not going to be the VP — it’s clear this is not Reagan and Bush in 1980. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t be a part of the administration as a department secretary.”