By CONNIE CASS, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — From obscure former senator driving a pickup truck across Iowa, Rick Santorum made a surprising — he calls it miraculous — leap to become the most formidable threat to Mitt Romney's march to the Republican nomination. His shoestring campaign, which ended Tuesday, was a constant reminder of Romney's trouble connecting with the party's conservative core.
Santorum's presence in the race pushed to the fore polarizing social issues, such as abortion, access to birth control and gays in the military, that many in the party preferred not to delve into as the GOP prepared to court independent voters in the general election campaign against President Barack Obama. Although he accused the media of unfairly focusing on that part of his broader campaign, Santorum was unapologetic about taking on such issues.
"We did focus a lot, yes, on the families and on the dignity of human life and on the moral enterprise that is America," he said Tuesday in Gettysburg, Pa., as he announced his decision to suspend his campaign.
He added: "We were winning in a very different way because we were touching hearts. We were raising issues that, well, frankly, a lot of people didn't want to have raised."
As it became obvious Santorum could not triumph in the primaries and caucuses, he began talking of an unorthodox strategy of stealing the nomination away from a weakened Romney at a divided Republican National Convention. Santorum argued that the delegates would embrace him as the true conservative in the race, even though most are being sent to the convention by voters who chose Romney.
Many Republicans, bent on showing unity against Obama, considered such a strategy disastrous and began calling for the party to rally around Romney as the presumptive nominee.
While Santorum avoided mentioning Romney on Tuesday, he pledged to stay in the fight to defeat Obama, which presumably means embracing the party's nominee at some point. In a recent interview, Santorum even said he was open to the possibility of becoming Romney's running mate.
He seems an unlikely choice for Romney, given that just last month he was calling the former Massachusetts governor "the worst Republican in the country" to challenge Obama.
Santorum likes to compare himself to President Ronald Reagan, a fellow conservative who happens to have lost his own first bid for the party's nomination before winning in a landslide four years later. The comparison suggests Santorum might expect better chances for himself in 2016, should Obama win re-election.
No matter what, Santorum has made himself a national name and gained influence over his party's agenda.
His withdrawal came after he had fallen hopelessly behind Romney in the race for GOP delegates. And he risked an embarrassing loss in his home state of Pennsylvania if he stuck around for its April 24 primary. Polls indicated his once strong lead slipping away in Pennsylvania, which ousted Santorum from the Senate in a rout in 2006. Many voters there still remember him unfavorably.
Santorum said he came to the decision to leave the race with his family after his daughter Bella, who suffers from a rare and serious genetic condition, was hospitalized over the holiday weekend. She came home Monday night.
Longtime Santorum adviser John Brabender said the candidate, his wife and top advisers agreed Monday night that ending the campaign was for the best. "It was something everybody felt good about," Brabender said, and "wasn't something that gave us a restless night."
Santorum and Romney talked by phone Tuesday and agreed to meet in person soon, Brabender said.
One Pennsylvania supporter, Chad Collie, said Santorum's withdrawal left him "speechless."
Collie, owner of a plaster and drywall business, had brought his wife and two children, ages 3 and 5, to what he expected to be a Gettysburg campaign event for the "truly genuine conservative" he planned to support in the state's GOP primary.