Rick Santorum always was an improbable, even quixotic, candidate for the US presidency, let alone the Republican party nomination. Walloped by 18 points in his re-election bid for the Senate in 2006, he had spent the last half dozen years on the fringes of politics, rarely figuring in any political conversations.
But he ran and endured, where a succession of others did not, until he effectively called it quits on Tuesday. While the Tea Party movement, religious conservatives and other elements of the Republican right fell in and out of love with Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich, who technically is still standing, he stuck around to become the leading conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts.
That is some kind of achievement for a man who in the many early candidate debates was often ignored by moderators, a lonely figure at one end of the contender line, reduced to complaining that he was ignored. But a surprising finish in the Iowa caucuses (which he actually won, though was initially declared a close second in the first vote actually cast) propelled him to centre stage, just as others were leaving it.
His only real appeal was to the religious right. A staunch Catholic, he opposed not only abortion but women’s use of contraceptives and once said that John Kennedy’s pledge in 1960 that would never allow his faith to influence his presidency “almost made me throw up”. Such sentiments, from which Mr Romney was often hard pressed to dissociate himself, may come back to haunt the putative nominee; they have certainly contributed to the 18-20 per cent gender gap now hampering Mr Romney against President Barack Obama.
Indeed the most important impact of the Santorum campaign may have been the extent to which he pushed Mr Romney to pander to the far right, taking positions he may find difficult to retract as he inevitably tries to appeal the political middle and to independents who generally determine presidential elections.
Speculation of late was that Mr Santorum was promoting his own chances of being picked as Mr Romney’s running mate. That always seemed improbable, for the reasons stated above, added to which that there were grave doubts, given the magnitude of his last statewide loss, that he could have delivered his important home state of Pennsylvania to the Republican fold. He probably would not have even beaten Mr Romney there next week.
His exit will cause few ripples. The rightwing is left with Newt Gingrich, whose credibility is already shot, and the libertarians with Ron Paul, now a fringe non-factor. Mr Santorum might have earned a speaking slot in the Republican convention in Tampa in August, but it probably will not be in prime time, especially after he said not a word about Mr Romney in pulling out of the race today.
In sum, he came from nowhere and is returning there, having enjoyed a brief moment in the sun after his handful of primary victories. But that is more than can be said for all the other candidates behind whom he began.
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