Things that look final sometimes aren't.
But energy can only take you so far. After winning Iowa, the campaign moved onto New Hampshire, where the Republican Party is more moderate. Santorum came in fifth. There’d be a similar result in South Carolina, where he earned just 17 percent of the vote. Gingrich came in first.
On Feb. 7, Santorum swept the polls, taking Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota. Romney would take the next five states—Maine, Arizona, Michigan, Wyoming, Washington—running vicious, negative campaign ads throughout. On Super Tuesday, March 6, 10 states were in play; it was Romney’s best chance to sweep and declare himself the Republican Champion of the World in the United States. But it didn’t happen. Santorum took North Dakota, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Gingrich took his home state of Georgia.
Santorum wasn’t ahead, but he was exploiting Romney’s weakness: the religious conservative base of the Republican party, many of whom are suspicious both of Romney’s former moderate stances and of his Mormonism. After Super Tuesday, Santorum was the official anti-Romney candidate. It was a two-man race—now he just needed something to humanize him. Something catchy. Like a song.
He got one.
“Victory’s in sight,” sang Haley and Camille Harris, Oklahoma sisters with a pop-country band called First Love, in the YouTube video for their song “Game On.” “We’ve got a man who understands that God gave the Bill of Rights/ … Oh, there is hope for our nation again/Maybe the first time since we had Ronald Reagan/There will be justice for the unborn/Factories back on our shores/Where the Constitution rules our land/Yes, I believe Rick Santorum is our man!”
The video was uploaded on Super Tuesday and would soon gain more than a million views. The tune may not have been an enduring classic of American music, but it nicely summed up how Santorum’s supporters saw his place in the Republican field. And not to put too fine a point on it, the sisters’ dad, David Harris, volunteered: “The music that we have, we believe came from God. Especially this song.”
Over the next month, the Santorum campaign would undergo a complete narrowing of focus, sidelining discussion of the economy and world politics to hammer social issues like abortion, contraception and family, which, according to Dr. G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs and a pollster at Franklin and Marshall College, are “where his heart is.”
“I think he firmly believes that the problems in America are not just about big government,” says Madonna, who’s been following Santorum’s Pennsylvania career since the 1980s. “He thinks that you can’t address the economic question if we have single parents, unwed mothers … At the heart of it … it’s not whether we have a $16 trillion national debt—it’s that we have a dysfunctional family leading to all the social laws and the need to cover all the folks that don’t have the will to support themselves. He says everyone talks about the issues, not the root cause.”
“What Rick brings to the table is very much needed in terms of how families are the core of our nation,” said Michael Gould, a Northeast Philadelphia committeeman and Santorum supporter, less than a week before Santorum announced his suspension. “That balancing act of professional and family life is part of his experience, and that keeps him as a realistic candidate for the presidency who can lead our country.”
Gould believed that Santorum’s philosophy on the family being the core of the American experience was the most important aspect the conservative brought to the table. “I think that’s essential,” he said. “I think we’ve seen how our country has evolved from the industrial age to the information age and gone from big business pushing a lot of interests and, more recently, since the Obama election, government really pushing a lot of what goes on in our country … the family really is the core unit that is the strength of America.”
But Santorum’s narrow, exclusionary view of the American family has its drawbacks. Some conservatives would rather stay clear of that whole conversation.
Philadelphia Republican activist Mike Cibik thinks Santorum turned too many people off to win in November. And getting rid of Obama, he says, is what’s truly important. “I wouldn’t let [Obama] run a hotdog stand,” Cibik says with a laugh. “I think Mitt Romney is the better candidate to win in November. Santorum focuses too much on social issues. You’ve got to focus, and the focus should really be on the economy and financial issues. Abortion and gay marriage and guns and religion, that gets mushy.”
Featherman agrees, saying he’s more comfortable running his own campaign with Romney at the top, rather than Santorum.
Greene, the political strategist, says he’s seen the same problems amongst those with which he’s spoken. “My Democratic friends who aren’t happy with Obama—[Santorum] scares the shit out of them. He really does. And me, too,” he admits.
Madonna says Santorum did particularly well with “evangelicals, born-again [Christians], people of lower income, people of less education and rural voters.” Similarly, the states he won throughout the campaign, like Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Missouri, Alabama and Mississippi were made up of those groups more often than some of the moderate states Romney won, like Wisconsin, Illinois, Virginia, Vermont, New Hampshire and Michigan.
Pennsylvania, the state that had rejected Santorum six years ago, was one of the only moderate swing states in contention he had a shot at winning. But it perfectly fit the archetype of a “Romney win” state: A moderate, working-class, heavily unionized rung of the Rust Belt, whose Republicans are more concerned with defeating Obama than making a point about social conservativism.
Greene suggests Santorum’s own ego and outside factors were probably at play in his decision to back out of the race before his home-state primary. “Does he stay in Pennsylvania, lose narrowly, consider that a [moral] victory and then pull out? That’s a possibility. I think he has enough to say, ‘I have to do Pennsylvania. If I don’t, I’m a total coward,’” Greene noted just before Easter. “This weekend, everything is going to weigh heavily on him. There will be a lot of praying and it’ll be, ‘Do I do this?’ Because he’ll be a real pariah in the party if he wants to take this all the way to the end. He’ll shoot himself in both feet.”
But if Santorum spent Easter weekend praying, it was probably less about his own future than that of his family. His 3-year-old daughter, Bella, suffers from Trisomy 18, a rare genetic disorder that kills 90 percent of afflicted children within their first year of life. She was admitted to the hospital on Good Friday—the second time in 2012.
“Over the weekend, there was a lot of speculation about what he was going to do, because of his daughter’s health problems,” says Madonna, “but, quite frankly, when you think about it, on one level, [it was a surprise he dropped out] because of how deep his commitment to this cause is. And I have said that his campaign is a mission. A lot of people look at it like winning or losing votes. Yeah, that’s true; but it’s also a mission. Because he thinks America is on a precipice.”
That big-picture mission of Santorum’s looms large over his decision to get out of the race now. The most recent polls suggested that he was still perfectly capable of losing the Pennsylvania primary to Romney—and a candidate who loses his own home state twice does not smell like a winner. Dropping out when he did may have been Santorum’s one chance to keep the possibility of yet another future comeback alive.
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