News Column

Pa. Looms Larger Now for Santorum

March 21, 2012

Thomas Fitzgerald

Rick Santorum

Like another insurgent army in the decisive battle of the Civil War outside town nearly 149 years ago, Rick Santorum did not break through the lines Tuesday, losing the Illinois Republican primary to Mitt Romney.

It is too soon, of course, to say how pivotal Illinois will be in deciding the fight for the 2012 GOP nomination, but Santorum clearly missed a needed chance to prove he could win in a state that was not tailor-made for him -- northern and industrial, dominated by moderate suburban and secular voters rather than rural evangelical ones.

"We won the areas that conservatives and Republicans populate," the former Pennsylvania senator told several hundred cheering supporters in the ballroom of the historic Gettysburg Hotel about the results in Illinois, where he won large swaths of territory outside the Chicago metropolitan area. "We're happy about that. We're happy about the delegates we're going to get, too."

Romney was poised to capture a majority of the 54 delegates at stake in Illinois. Because Santorum failed to meet all the ballot requirements in four of the state's 19 congressional districts, he was eligible to win only 44 delegates; his aides thought he was on track to get about half of them.

Santorum also said he was kicking off his campaign toward the April 24 primary in Pennsylvania, which he represented in Congress for 16 years -- and which now looks more important than ever as Romney widens his lead in delegates.

Perhaps it was appropriate that the lectern at Santorum's election-watch party at the Gettysburg was draped in black felt, like a funeral catafalque, considering the returns from Illinois. But the candidate's mood was upbeat as he addressed supporters beneath a Braveheart-themed banner that read, simply, "FREEDOM."

Hundreds thronged the square outside the hotel, both cheering and protesting Santorum. He planned to head Wednesday to Louisiana, campaigning ahead of that state's primary Saturday.

Santorum's campaign chose Gettysburg because it wanted to make an association with Abraham Lincoln, who proclaimed a "new birth of freedom" in his famous speech in November 1863 dedicating the cemetery for those fallen in the Battle of Gettysburg.

"We need somebody who's going to pull up government by the roots and throw it out and liberate the private sector," Santorum told supporters. He said that, unlike Romney, a former Wall Street banker, he did not have experience in high finance.

But he did grow up in a steel-producing valley in Western Pennsylvania.

"I learned everything about freedom and opportunity and hard work growing up with folks who worked in the mills and mines," Santorum said.

He has cast his ragtag campaign as a band of freedom fighters standing up for limited government. His chief argument: that Romney, whose Massachusetts health-care program served as a model for the national law pushed through by President Obama, would offer a poor contrast for conservative principles in the Nov. 6 election.

Some historians say Gettysburg was not exactly a good symbolic fit for such a message.

"Lincoln's outlook was the opposite of the antigovernment fundamentalism of Santorum," said historian Eric Foner, a Lincoln scholar from Columbia University.

"Lincoln favored government financing of infrastructure -- roads, canals, railroads, schools -- to create the conditions for economic growth, and even a protective tariff to shield American workers from low-wage competition overseas," Foner said. "Opposition to Obama's health-care law has nothing to do with freedom as Lincoln understood it."

Santorum has been running his campaign with a small inner circle, and it has struggled to scale up and organize as the fight has spread across the nation. On the positive side, that has kept his operation nimble, without its own polling or a staff bureaucracy that needs to sign off on every major decision.

But the Santorum campaign has been at times undisciplined. In recent weeks he allowed himself to be dragged into discussions about his personal moral opposition to birth control, and his belief that Obama is a "snob" for advocating that most American youths should go to college.

And last week, Santorum decided to spend two days campaigning in Puerto Rico, where he commited several gaffes -- including demanding that the Spanish-speaking island make English its exclusive official language as a precondition to becoming a state -- and won just 8 percent of the vote and zero delegates.

All the while, Romney was widening his lead in Illinois.

Then, on Monday, Santorum gave Romney's campaign an opening, saying he did not care about the unemployment rate.

"Doesn't matter to me. My campaign doesn't hinge on unemployment rates and growth rates," Santorum said in Illinois. "It's something more foundational that's going on."

In context, it was clear what Santorum meant, that the country's economic and other problems are inseparable from the need to preserve its founding ideals. But still, he was off message again -- exit polls showed that, as in every other state, the economy was foremost on Illinois voters' minds -- and Santorum had to spend the crucial final hours of the campaign in the Land of Lincoln explaining himself.


Staff writer Amy Worden contributed to this article.

Source: (c) 2012 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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