Once Again, Santorum Keeps It Close But Falls Further Behind

Apr 4, 2012
Originally published on April 4, 2012 1:50 pm

Rick Santorum came surprisingly close to an upset in Wisconsin this week, losing to Mitt Romney by less than 5 percentage points. It was not as heartbreakingly close as his previous losses in Michigan and Ohio, but it was one more reminder of what might have been.

With a win in Wisconsin, Santorum would have confounded the ruling media narrative of the moment, which wants to turn from the primary season of spring to the autumnal matchup of Romney and President Obama.

True, Santorum also lost this week by far more decisive margins in Maryland and the District of Columbia, which combined to give rival Romney about 50 new delegates. But Wisconsin had become the focal point of the day, offering the latest and perhaps last chance for Santorum and other Romney opponents to derail the Front-Runner Express and declare the nomination contest wide open.

To this end, Santorum worked the rural communities of the Badger State hard, wearing the farm gear and rolling the bowling balls and talking to the local papers. His crowds were not large but his target audience got the message. Despite a late rush of local endorsements for Romney, Santorum did not collapse. Defying polls, including an exit poll on primary day showing Romney ahead by 8 points, the final tally was much closer.

Yet once again, any chance Santorum had of capitalizing on his good showing was lost in his own mixed messaging. He left Wisconsin on primary day to retreat to Pennsylvania, and not to his own hometown but to a neighboring community named Mars. Correspondents could note they were reporting from Mars, offering one more chance to portray Santorum's unconventional campaign as anything but down to earth.

Meeting the crowd in Mars, Santorum played the firebrand once more, proclaiming his determination to stay in the race and turn things around. But like the speeches he made in Michigan and Ohio, this one was preoccupied with political purism — a theme that has yet to get Santorum over the top in populous states.

Media misses have become the norm for the Santorum insurgency. It is easy to forget that he virtually tied Romney for delegates in Romney's "home" state of Michigan in February, or that he lost by a single percentage point in crucial Ohio in March. But these were the inflection points that determined the nomination. Forget about everything else; it was the dual disappointments in Michigan and Ohio that kept the upstart from Pennsylvania from making his challenge to Romney stick.

You could hear an echo of those events this week as broadcasters and others called Wisconsin for Romney early and then sweated out late returns that shrank the gap. It was a great opportunity to upbraid the media as elements of the establishment, a tactic Newt Gingrich has used many times.

But once again, Santorum sacrificed any chance he had of spinning the Tuesday results in his favor by making what the media regard as loser moves. Once again, Santorum's sanctimonious presentation was neither a concession nor a claim of victory. As before, he seemed more concerned with the emotional resonance of his cause, auditioning more for the role of martyr than for that of national leader.

For that reason, Romney's trifecta of this week put the closing bracket on an eight-week interlude in which Santorum had been his main challenger. The eight weeks had begun with Santorum's own trifecta in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, which he won Feb. 7.

The difference was that in Santorum's trifecta Tuesday in February, he secured no delegates at all (the contests were not binding), whereas this week's trio of wins for Romney delivered roughly 80 delegates for him (and fewer than 20 for Santorum).

Romney already had more than twice as many delegates as Santorum, whether you count only the hardest of the hard-core committed or expand your count to include projections. That is why professionals look at the remaining events and say that neither Santorum nor anyone else can win often enough or win big enough to deny Romney's bid.

Still, the surprising Santorum and his trenchant appeal to voters in the "Republican parts" of Midwestern and Great Lakes states have been the story of the GOP nominating contest for the past eight weeks. And only now does Romney the front-runner feel sure enough of the nomination to train his fire exclusively on the president.

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