Santorum's Willingness to Fight to the End Comes With Risks

Santorum's Willingness to Fight to the End Comes With Risks

By Scott Conroy - March 27, 2012

Almost no one expected Rick Santorum to get this far.

After all, the former Pennsylvania senator spent the first six months of his bid for the Republican presidential nomination as an under-funded, under-organized, and under-polling sideshow, someone who was discounted privately by his Republican rivals and the media alike.

But with 11 states now in the win column, Santorum has made Mitt Romney scrap for nearly all of his victories and surely has caused more than a few sleepless nights at the front-runner’s campaign headquarters in Boston.

Nonetheless, Romney has amassed a substantial lead in the delegate count as April nears, a month that offers several opportunities for him to take a major step toward becoming the nominee. And conservatives who had long been skeptical of him are beginning call more loudly for the party to unite around the former Massachusetts governor.

This dynamic is an unpleasant one for Santorum, not only because of its implications for 2012 but because it raises an important long-term question for him: Is he risking his future in the party by continuing to run an aggressive campaign against the likely nominee?

South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint threatened to open the floodgates against Santorum last week when he heaped praise on Romney and said that his remaining GOP opponents should assess whether they can still win.

"If they can't, the best thing they can probably do is to help the one who is going to win,” DeMint said.

On Sunday, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour -- who, like DeMint, has not endorsed Romney -- upped the ante by suggesting that the front-runner would become the nominee “unless he steps on a landmine.”

The inevitability argument is one that Santorum argues is hollow, insisting that he can still win the 1,144 delegates required to seal the nomination on the first ballot. “We have just as good a chance of getting to [the delegate threshold] as he does,” he told the National Review.

But Santorum is finding fewer prominent Republicans who defend that view.

While many political observers have circled April 24 as the date on which a Santorum loss in his home state would leave him little choice but to step aside, a more immediate day of reckoning could come next Tuesday when Wisconsin, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., hold their primaries.

Santorum has little chance of victory in the latter two contests, and has recently downplayed his chances of winning in Wisconsin; an 0-for-3 showing that day will surely increase the calls for him to step aside, or at the very least to tone down the rhetoric against Romney.

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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