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Politics

Santorum's Exit Can Help Him -- in 2016 or Beyond

He nearly overstayed his welcome, but a quick and forceful endorsement of Romney will extend his political future.

Rick Santorum's decision to suspend his presidential campaign because of concerns about his young daughter's health won't win him a spot on the Republican ticket as Mitt Romney's running mate.

But it will leave him with a better chance of winning the GOP nomination in 2016 if Romney loses to President Obama this fall.

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Santorum had no chance of wresting the nomination from Romney. The polls were even starting to turn against him in Pennsylvania, the state Santorum represented for two terms in the Senate. Yet he soldiered on, saying at one point that he would stay in until Romney went over the top in delegates.

Each day he stayed in the race was one less day Romney and the rest of the Republican Party had to fully focus on Obama. It was also one more day for Santorum to hurt his own chances down the road. Sticking to that course would have been political suicide.

Some will argue that Santorum should have quit earlier, and they are probably right. But getting out now still leaves plenty of time for the Republican Party to come together to take on Obama.

The key is what happens next. Santorum didn't say he would endorse Romney or release the delegates he won during the bitter primaries. He'll come under tremendous pressure to do both of those things, however, and he'll do them in very short order. The sooner Santorum starts saying nice things about Romney, the sooner undecided voters will forget the not-so-nice things Santorum said about the front-runner earlier.

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The endorsement has to be more than lip service. Santorum needs to say -- loudly and frequently -- that Romney deserves the support of the party's conservatives who voted for Santorum and Newt Gingrich in the primaries and favored many other “not Romney” candidates in the months before the voting started.

That won't be easy, but Santorum has to do it, and he knows it.

The Republican Party has a long history of giving losing candidates a second chance, provided they prove themselves loyal to the candidates who defeated them the first time. Romney is just one example. After losing the nomination to John McCain four years ago, Romney started the 2012 race as the front-runner and will be the party's nominee. And McCain, after his spirited challenge of George W. Bush in 2000, backed him in two campaigns, then emerged as the party's nominee in 2008. Even the GOP's saint of all causes, Ronald Reagan, came up short once -- in 1976 against Gerald Ford -- before winning the nomination and the first of two terms in the White House in 1980.

Santorum is just 53, plenty young enough to run again in four years, or even eight. If Romney loses in the fall, he'll be done as a candidate and the 2016 Republican race will be wide open. Santorum could stake a claim, and many in the party would be inclined to, at the least, give him a solid look.

That Rick Santorum emerged from nowhere (just a few months ago he was in the low single digits in polls) to be the runner-up in the Republican race will go down as one of the biggest surprises of the 2012 campaign.

Today's exit leaves room for more surprises down the road.

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