If Santorum stays in race, Pennsylvania could spell his doom
Less than a month before the Republican presidential primary in Pennsylvania, some experts warn that Rick Santorum faces a second humiliating defeat in a state he represented for 16 years in Washington.
The campaign should end before the April 24 primary here if the former senator continues to slide in opinion polls and lose other primaries, said Ed Morrissey, editor of the widely read conservative blog, Hot Air.
"Losing in Pennsylvania not only finishes him in the race, but it may finish him for good," said Morrissey, who caucused for Santorum last week in Minnesota.
A Franklin & Marshall College poll released on Wednesday showed Santorum lost a double-digit lead over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in less than a month. The two are about tied in Pennsylvania.
In 2006, Santorum lost a bid for a third term by 18 percentage points to Democrat Bob Casey of Scranton, the worst drubbing in the nation that year for an incumbent.
Republican strategist Brad Todd said Santorum faces a tough series of contests before Pennsylvania, especially primaries in Wisconsin, Maryland and Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.
"I think with Wisconsin, it will be hard to stitch a narrative together, even by his most ardent backers, if he loses there to go on," said Todd, noting polls show Santorum trailing Romney by 8 percentage points in the Badger State. "The support isn't there for him. Losing another blue-collar, Catholic-rich Midwestern state to Mitt Romney isn't a good story to tell."
Santorum's campaign appears to be in trouble as well in Maryland and the District of Columbia, said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst for University of Virginia.
"Then there's a three-week break, which gives Romney time to really focus on Pennsylvania in an effort to knock Santorum from the race," he said.
The Santorum campaign did not return requests for comment.
A candidate needs 1,144 delegates to gain the Republican nomination. Romney has 568 delegates to Santorum's 273, with about 1,258 remaining to be chosen, according to the Associated Press.
Santorum's delegate gap with Romney is essentially insurmountable, said Josh Putnam, an expert at Davidson College in North Carolina.
"They could make the argument that better days are ahead in May in Arkansas, Texas and North Carolina, but that becomes decreasingly likely when and if he gets swept during the April contests," Putnam said.
"Which makes me wonder if the contest really ever gets to Pennsylvania," said Morrissey.
"Needless to say, if the new poll holds true and Pennsylvania is now a dead heat, Santorum could be staring an embarrassing loss in the face," said Kondik.
Kondik said exit polls show a trend during this Republican primary cycle.
"In states where exit polling has been conducted, Mitt Romney wins the state when the percentage of white, evangelical Christians voting is below 50 percent," he said.
When that number is above 50 percent, one of Romney's opponents has won.
"While we do not have exit polling from Pennsylvania's Republican primary in 2008, it's safe to assume that the evangelical count in Pennsylvania will be similar to other states in the Midwest: 47 percent in Ohio, 42 percent in Illinois and 39 percent in Michigan," he said. Romney won all three primaries.
The evangelical vote in Wisconsin likely will be less than 50 percent, he said.
"My larger point here is this: Santorum does not have a place coming up for the rest of the month, Pennsylvania included, where he is likely to do all that well," he said. "Considering not only the demographics of the upcoming states, but also the fact that Romney and his allies will be outspending Santorum in Pennsylvania and other upcoming states."
Joe Trippi, veteran Democratic strategist who ran Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's presidential campaign in 2004, said he understands why Santorum can't just let go.
"It is very hard to pull out of that once you start to taste victory," Trippi said. "I understand the human difficulty of walking away."