Will Rick Santorum Be a Team Player?

Can Rick Santorum be part of the solution for Republicans? Or will he become the problem?

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Now that Newt Gingrich's campaign is downsizing faster than Main Street in these difficult economic times, and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson has effectively pulled the plug on funding the super PAC that supports the former House speaker, it does appear Gingrich's campaign has reached the end of the line.

This doesn't change the standings. Former Gov. Mitt Romney remains the front-runner, much to the dismay of the former Soviet apparatchiks at Pravda who called him "a foul-mouthed, big-headed oaf … with more money than sense" after Romney referred to Russia as America's "number one geopolitical foe."

[Vote: Whose Russia Comment Was More Damaging: Obama's or Romney's? ]

Former Sen. Rick Santorum remains second. And given that Santorum stands alone now as the only credible alternative to Romney, it's time for a frank discussion of Santorum's place in the Republican presidential primary going forward.

Despite Santorum's recent slew of less-than-disciplined outbursts, Real Clear Politics' Scott Conroy is right that "[a]lmost no one expected Rick Santorum to get this far."

For this reason alone, Santorum deserves both respect and a shot at a one-on-one race with Romney. He not only has defied the odds, he has brought back retail politics to the national level, demonstrated a level of passion that is the envy of Romney supporters, and literally lived out of the back of a van to make it all happen.

[See pictures of Rick Santorum.]

And yet, his day of reckoning could come soon. April's big primaries take place on Romney turf—the politically and socially moderate states of the Northeast, plus Wisconsin. If he can't pull off a breakthrough victory somewhere—and he is in trouble even in his home state of Pennsylvania—his chances of capturing enough delegates to win the nomination in Tampa in August will have disappeared.

Then what? Will he know when to fold 'em—a key question in politics, particularly for those who want a future within their party? He has talked on the campaign trail of being a team player and even suggested he would entertain discussions of joining Romney's ticket as vice president. But can he do what it would take to make that happen? Can he dial down the nastiness he now directs at Romney? Can he be part of the solution for Republicans? Or will he become the problem?

[See a collection of political cartoons on Rick Santorum.]

If Romney captures both Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Santorum will need to bow out. A brokered convention is unlikely, and even if one occurred, he almost certainly would not emerge the nominee. Plus, even Santorum needs Republicans to be able to shift their focus to the big prize—taking the White House from Barack Obama.

It's been messy … these things always are. And the party owes Santorum a great debt for bringing energy to the campaign trail, forcing Romney to acknowledge the social conservatives who form the party's base, and demonstrating the value of retail politics in this age of the 24-hour news cycle.

But if he can't break through in April, he needs to keep his word about being a team player. Will he? We'll almost certainly find out in May.

  • See a collection of political cartoons on Mitt Romney
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