PITTSBURGH - The morning after Mitt Romney defeated Rick Santorum in three more primary state elections, Santorum's staff awoke to national headlines declaring an all but official end to the primary season. "The Game is over," announced CBS News. "The fat lady has sung," said ABC News.
What's an insurgent campaign to do?
The same thing the Santorum team has done all year: Ignore the noise.
"We've heard that since McCain in '08--that it's going to be Romney--so that's nothing new," Santorum communication director Hogan Gidley told reporters late Tuesday night in Mars, Pennsylvania, where Santorum held a primary night rally. "If this thing was all about D.C. pressure for us to get out we'd have never even set foot in Iowa. This thing's been going on for a long time. We're not worried at all about the pressure we're going to get from the outside D.C. world, we've had it from the get go."
Romney was indeed viewed as the most likely candidate to win the nomination when Santorum arrived in Iowa. But now that the finish line is within eye shot, it's only going to get harder for Santorum to convince people that he's close enough to Romney to beat him in the final stretch.
But as Santorum sees it, he has one final opportunity to prove he still has life in him. Because of the primary calendar, Romney has been able to participate in three "home state elections" so far--he was governor of Massachusetts, he owns a vacation home in New Hampshire and he grew up in Michigan--and Santorum wants his moment of glory in Pennsylvania, the state he grew up in and represented in Congress for more than a decade.
Plus, the last time he ran a campaign here as an incumbent senator in 2006, he got trounced. In a way, Santorum needs to survive until the Pennsylvania primary on April 24 to prove--irregardless of the ultimate outcome of the Republican primary--how far he's come since losing his seat. It's personal.
Despite the long odds of defeating Romney strategically, the campaign sees this state race as a last hope. If he loses, campaign aides said, it's going to be "tough" to justify staying in.
"You could survive it but it would be tough," Gidley said. "I mean, Pennsylvania's a tough state. Pennsylvania and Texas are going to be the bellwethers in my opinion. We're either going to have to win one or both of those states and I think Mitt Romney's going to have do the same."
The campaign says they have enough money in the bank to stay afloat, and the three week lull until the next set of primaries buys them some time to keep the effort alive. If they can triumph in Pennsylvania, that will boost them into May, where a slate of potentially Sanatorium-friendly states, including Arkansas, West Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky, await.
They're also banking on what they see is an enthusiasm gap for Romney, which, unfortunately for Santorum, appears to be closing as it becomes more clear that Romney will be the nominee.
"You see that we have supporters who crawl across broken glass. Mitt Romney couldn't get somebody to walk across a parking lot with a pair of Nikes and if he gave them a golf cart," Gidley said. "And that's a huge difference here. You have to rally the base, you have to have them excited if you're going to win a general election."
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