1:55pm

Tue April 10, 2012
It's All Politics

What Santorum's Exit Means For Romney

That sigh of relief you heard coming from the direction of Boston was Mitt Romney's campaign operation, now that it no longer needs to expend any more resources trying to drive Rick Santorum from the contest for the Republican presidential nomination.

Aside from the money and brainpower that the Romney campaign can now target at President Obama as it rotates fully to general-election-campaign mode, the GOP front-runner has, even more important, finally freed himself from his last significant anyone-but-Romney challenger.

That's crucial because Santorum, who ran as a culture warrior, constantly accused Romney of being a moderate who was only masquerading as a conservative.

That kept the former Massachusetts governor constantly having to assert his conservative bona fides, preventing him from making the traditional presidential candidate's sidestep back toward the ideological center.

Santorum's departure means Romney is finally in a position to draw to his ranks that part of the Republican electorate that until now has preferred his numerous rivals, virtually each of whom has risen to challenge him only to fall, the latest and last being the former senator from Pennsylvania.

In a statement, Romney said:

"Senator Santorum is an able and worthy competitor, and I congratulate him on the campaign he ran. He has proven himself to be an important voice in our party and in the nation. We both recognize that what is most important is putting the failures of the last three years behind us and setting America back on the path to prosperity."

While Romney gave a kindly shout out to Santorum, whom he had been cudgeling in TV ads until just a few days ago, the former senator didn't return the favor. It was widely noted that he didn't mention Romney once in his farewell speech. Still, he did say he would work to defeat Obama, which leads one to believe he means to help his party's eventual nominee.

But whether or not that omission was a sign of tension between the camps, it probably won't matter much to rank-and-file Republicans.

Ed Goeas, president and CEO of the Tarrance Group, a Republican polling and political strategy organization, said in an interview that the resistance to Romney from many of those who until now supported Santorum was actually less than it appeared.

GOEAS: "Something that I always found interesting, as I looked at the data, was that two-thirds of the voters who were voting for Santorum, on the second choice were voting for Romney. And about two-thirds who were voting for Romney were voting for Santorum.

"So this was never, quite frankly, 'I like my guy, I hate your guy.' This was more 'Here's my preference this week at this time.' And I think you will see an overwhelming number of those voters coalescing behind Romney.

"And the numbers I always looked at in terms of Romney, we saw it was hovering in the high 50s, 'Who do you think is most electable' or 'Who do you think will be the nominee?' It raised about a month ago to the low 70s. Which proves to me this was not an animosity-driven choice but here's my guy but if he's not in it I'm comfortable with this guy.

"So it does give Romney a real opportunity to build on that large number of people that were saying they thought that he would be the most electable and that he would be the nominee."

Of course, not everyone saw it this way. Newt Gingrich tweeted:

It is now a 2 person race. Donate now at http://newt.org/donate for the last conservative standing.

The former speaker is right that it's a two-person race. But, as one of my colleagues noted, they would be Romney and Obama.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.