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Did Religious Right Leaders Spike Santorum's Campaign?

Romney and Santorum huddled with religious-right leaders over Easter week. Did those meetings determine Santorum's fate?
 
 
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Photo Credit: C-SPAN

 
Yesterday, while comparing himself to Lincoln, Rick Santorum surrendered at Gettysburg. Speaking at a press conference called at the historic site of the battle, in his home state of Pennsylvania, that marked a turning point in the Civil War, Santorum announced that he was "suspending" his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. Yet in a concession speech laced with religious language, Santorum declared himself a victor in the "moral enterprise" that is America. "I think what I tried to bring to the battle was what Abraham Lincoln brought to this battlefield back in 1863 on November 19th," Santorum said, "when he talked about this country being conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal...."
 
While Santorum's exit was inevitable, it would be a mistake to dismiss the former U.S. senator as a player in the GOP, however far outside the mainstream his views may seem. In fact, even after his exit, it's safe to say Santorum's imprint on the presidential contest of 2012 will be felt until Election Day.
 
Never before, it seems, had the political universe served up a presidential candidate quite so ripe for ridicule as Santorum. From his " man on dog" comment about gay sex some years ago to his ham-handed attempt to backtrack on a clearly racist campaign-trail inference about African Americans and public assistance (he claimed to have said "blah" people, not "black" people), Santorum has served up piles of pillory-worthy comments, not least of them his stated contention that birth control harms women. And that was before the unearthing of his 2008 speech about how Satan had set his sights on America.
 
Yet, flying in the face of probability, Rick Santorum had a remarkably good run in the 2012 Republican primary season, winning the Iowa caucuses and nearly eclipsing frontrunner Mitt Romney, a multimillionaire supported by a big, fat super-PAC, in the Mittster's home state of Michigan. Santorum did it all without the support of Republican Party pooh-bahs, and on a shoestring budget. Even the super-PAC allied with him, the Red, White and Blue Fund, lacked the larded coffers enjoyed by Newt Gingrich, and Gingrich never came close to winning the number of delegates Santorum corralled to his cause.
 
But despite the rags-to-rich-guy menace narrative advanced by the Santorum campaign, he was not without powerful allies -- people who have been successfully moving the Republican Party to the right for more than 30 years. Richard Viguerie, a founder of the the religious right, was an early booster. In January, leaders of the religious right convened at a ranch in Texas to try to arrive at a consensus candidate. Although consensus proved elusive, most of the leaders threw in behind Santorum. And when Santorum's fortunes began flagging in March, they convened again to promise whatever help he would need, according to Politico's Jonathan Martin, to stay in the race until the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
 
But it was not to be. On Holy Thursday, Santorum met with a group of religious-right leaders, including Viguerie and Gary Bauer, to plot a path forward, according to Bauer. Asked by Politico whether the mood was one of optimism or pessimism, Bauer replied, "Realism."
 
By Easter Sunday, Richard Land, the powerful lobbyist for the Southern Baptist Convention, was calling on Santorum to step aside -- just days after Romney met with his own cadre of right-wing leaders, including former Attorney General Ed Meese and Heritage Foundation president Ed Feulner. Meanwhile, Santorum's three-year-old daughter, Bella, who suffered from a debilitating chromosomic disorder, was hospitalized for a second time on Friday, leading Santorum to explain his exit from the race as a family matter. "Good Friday was a little bit of a passion play for us with our daughter, Bella," Santorum said. 
 
To listen to Santorum on Tuesday, you'd think that Bella's health was the only determining factor for his exit, but there were likely others, not least of them a new poll by Public Policy Polling that showed Romney leading Santorum in the latter's home state of Pennsylvania, whose primary will take place on April 24. Having lost his last senatorial election by a whopping 18 points after serving two terms, Santorum's reputation would have sustained serious damage if he had lost once again on his home turf. Better to exit with a legacy of having given the rich guy a run for his money. And Santorum strategist John Brabender told reporters after the press conference that the difficulty of pulling off a victory in the winner-take-all primary in Texas on May 29, which will award 155 delegates, was a consideration.
 
For the purposes of religious right leaders, Santorum may have just done his job well enough. He certainly pushed Romney further to the right than the former Massachusetts governor had been at the beginning of the race. Politico reported that in last week's summit with Meese and Feulner, the talk was not of the primary, but rather of the general election and the Supreme Court. Perhaps the elders came away satisfied that a President Romney would appoint justices in the mold of John Roberts and Samuel Alito. 
 
In the meantime, Santorum fulfilled another role I suspect is important to some in the religious right leadership: he wounded Romney badly enough that all the money in the world may not ensure his recovery in the general election. To some in the religious right, their desire for control of the Republican Party trumps a desire to see a Republican win the presidency. Should a moderate win the White House, then control of the party falls into more moderate hands. Some would likely rather have Obama to kick around for another four years while they marshal their forces within the GOP for a wide-open contest in 2016. And while Romney's current slate of positions is anything but moderate, he is not deemed a trustworthy carrier of the cause by those who would like to turn America's clock back to the days when only the rights of white men were assured.
 
To that end, Santorum served up quite a playbook, accusing Romney of lying, saying Obama might be a better bet for president, hanging the healthcare plan signed by Obama (much hated by the right) around Romney's neck and tagging Romney as a flip-flopper. When a Romney aide assured those worried about Romney's tilt to the right that his agenda would be reset in the general election with the shake of an Etch-A-Sketch, Santorum dug his teeth into the comment and never let go, trotting it out at every campaign stop.
 
After Santorum's press conference in Gettysburg, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, who served as a spokesperson for the religious-right leaders who backed Santorum issued a statement. "Millions of voters flocked to Rick not because he was a Republican, but because he passionately articulated the connection between America 's financial greatness and its moral and cultural wholeness...." Perkins wrote. "This values message generated enthusiasm and drew many new voters into the process. If the Republican establishment hopes to generate this same voter intensity in the fall elections, Santorum voters must see it demonstrate a genuine and solid commitment to the core values issues."
 
Romney no doubt has these issues listed on his Etch-A-Sketch: 
  • No-exceptions anti-choice policy. Check.
  • Anti-contraception mandate policy for health insurers. Check.
  • Anti-marriage equality policy. Check.
  • Anti-government policy. Check.
  • Threat of military intervention in Iran. Check.
  • Scare-mongering on Islamic extremism. Check.
 The question remains whether the tablet is shaken before the party platform is written. I'm betting not.

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington correspondent. Follow her on Twitter: www.twitter.com/addiestan