They can’t win, but they won’t buy in

Strictly by the numbers, news that one of the Republican challengers to front-runner Mitt Romney exited the race Tuesday should have come as a surprise to no one.

There is Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the candidate with the most committed following in the entire GOP field, who has nonetheless failed to win a single primary or caucus in 37 attempts — and is given little chance of winning his home state’s May 29 primary.

There is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, winner of only two primaries, who is $4.5 million in debt and whose campaign bounced a $500 check this week in its bid to get on the Utah ballot.

And there is former Sen. Rick Santorum, Romney’s final obstacle to the nomination, who has won 11 state contests and was girding for an April 24 showdown with Romney in his home state of Pennsylvania.

That it was Santorum — not Paul, not Gingrich — who announced he was getting out of the race tells you all you need to know about this year’s topsy-turvy campaign, in which nearly all of the major candidates once held the title of front-runner — if only briefly.

But if you thought Santorum’s withdrawal from the race might prompt his colleagues to coalesce around Romney’s inevitable nomination, think again.

Shortly after the Pennsylvania senator’s announcement, the Paul campaign released a statement that put any such thoughts to rest.

“Congratulations to Sen. Santorum on running such a spirited campaign,” said campaign chairman Jesse Benton in a statement. “Dr. Paul is now the last — and real — conservative alternative to Mitt Romney.”

As for Gingrich, he, too, wasted little time in trying to woo Santorum backers.

“I humbly ask Sen. Santorum’s supporters to visit Newt.org to review my conservative record and join us as we bring these values to Tampa. ... I am committed to staying in this race all the way to Tampa so that the conservative movement has a real choice,” he said in a statement.

The Telegraph editorial board met with Santorum the week after Thanksgiving, long before he was a household name in the GOP primary field and when he was polling in the low single digits nationally and at a puny 1 percent in New Hampshire.

We discussed a broad range of issues that day — the economy, budget, taxes, health care, education, immigration, abortion, creationism, same-sex marriage, foreign affairs — and found him to be pleasant and knowledgeable.

And while we didn’t share much in common with his public policy views or his vision for the nation, it was refreshing to hear a candidate who wasn’t afraid to say what he believes — and to say it consistently, day after day, regardless of his audience.

With Santorum’s anticipated endorsement of Romney, it will now be interesting to see what social conservatives do in the remaining 19 state contests that wrap up June 26 in Utah.

Will they accept the inevitable, hold their collective noses and rally around Romney? Will they stick to their principles and throw their support behind Gingrich or Paul? Or will they just stay home and solidify a trend that shows the average Republican turnout through Super Tuesday was down from both 2008 and 2000?

Whatever they decide may have little bearing on the run-up to the Republican National Convention in August, but it could have a decisive impact on their party’s bid to reclaim the White House in November.

Comments » Read and share your thoughts on this story