The Ticket

Rick Santorum on Pennsylvania: ‘We are going to win’

Chris Moody, Yahoo News
The Ticket

HARRISBURG, Pa.With the sounds of a noisy bowling alley behind him Wednesday night, Rick Santorum reiterated his absolute confidence that he can beat Mitt Romney in Pennsylvania.

"We are going to win Pennsylvania," Santorum, who represented the state in Congress for 16 years, declared to a pack of reporters. "We need to win Pennsylvania."

His latter statement is certainly true. But, his chances of winning Pennsylvania are waning. A state poll from Public Policy Polling survey shows Romney leading Santorum by five percentage points, three weeks out. What's more, other recent polling suggests that Romney's popularity with evangelical voters and tea party supporters has spiked dramatically in recent weeks, a signal that even some of the strongest conservative holdouts in the party are beginning to accept that he will be the nominee. Those are the voters Santorum needs. If they defect, it will be impossible for his campaign to continue.

After Romney swept up a three-contest victory earlier this week, it became clear, at least to much of the news media and many leading Republicans, that the GOP primary is over. They have written off Santorum's ongoing efforts as nothing but a sideshow that has run its course. The Associated Press, which has kept arguably the best tally of the Republican race for delegates, called Romney's lead "insurmountable without a dramatic shift in the race."

And now Romney is increasing the pressure on Santorum. At his state campaign headquarters in Harrisburg, Pa. Thursday, the former Massachusetts governor reportedly said: "I do believe that I will win Pennsylvania in the fall, and winning Pennsylvania wins the White House, so it's a critical state for me."

But Romney appeared to quickly back off from that bold claim, adding: "I think everybody expects someone to win their home state... Newt Gingrich won his state, I won my state. I think people expect the senator to win his home state. But I'll pick up a lot of delegates, and we have several other states with contests the same day. I hope to win all of those. And if I can win the others and pick up some delegates here, it will give me a stronger lead."

Santorum sees a victory in Pennsylvania as the final spark that can begin that "dramatic shift." If he wins here, the former senator will have little reason to drop out before May, and the momentum could carry him through the next month, when a handful of states hold primaries. Santorum's camp predicts he can do well in these contests and keep Romney from reaching the 1,144 delegates needed to officially clinch the nomination.

[Related: Poll shows Romney leading in Santorum's home state]

But as Romney's inevitability parade marches forward, those key conservative states may become less attainable for any insurgent candidate to dominate.

Although the odds are long, you can hardly blame Santorum for staying in the race with the Pennsylvania primary just a few weeks away, especially if he senses victory. It was only six years ago that he suffered an embarrassing defeat to Bob Casey in his Senate race here, losing by nearly 18 percentage points. Even if Romney wins the nomination, success for Santorum in this particular state would help vindicate him after that stinging loss.

Despite his predictions, it won't be nearly as easy for him to win in Pennsylvania as it was for Romney to best his competitors in his own "home states" of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and, to a lesser extent, Michigan. With the party coalescing behind Romney, his image as the nominee grows stronger by the day, and he desperately wants to draw the primary race to a close so he can focus on President Barack Obama. By winning Pennsylvania, he can end all of this in a single blow. Romney is focusing much of his efforts here, with air cover from Restore Our Future, a super PAC supporting the former Massachusetts governor, which took out a six-figure ad buy in the state.

On Santorum's first full day back in Pennsylvania Wednesday, he prepared supporters for what he said would be an onslaught of attack ads in the coming weeks and urged them to ignore the negative messaging.

[Related: Pennsylvania is Santorum's last hope]

Speaking to reporters Wednesday night at the bowling alley in Harrisburg, Santorum looked back at the race in Wisconsin, predicting that Romney would implement a similar strategy of a major ad buy mixed with key endorsements.

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"Just look at Wisconsin for example," he said. "The onslaught of money. The onslaught of, really, let's be honest, very key endorsements that Governor Romney was able to get in Wisconsin. Look at Paul Ryan's district for example, areas we should have done very well, we didn't. It had a big impact."

And if Romney's strategy works again, what's next for Rick Santorum? When a reporter on Wednesday suggested he was prepping for a 2016 presidential run, Santorum quickly shot him down.

"Next time? You haven't talked to my wife, obviously," he said. The reporter reasserted his question and Santorum interrupted him again. "You didn't hear what I said. Talk to my wife about 'next time.' The last thing we're thinking about is 'next time.'"

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