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What did former presidential candidate Rick Santorum accomplish?

April 10, 2012|By Jon Healey
  • Surrounded by members of his family, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum announces he will be suspending his campaign during a press conference at the Gettysburg Hotel in Pennsylvania.
Surrounded by members of his family, Republican presidential candidate… (Jeff Swensen / Getty Images )

First Newt Gingrich, now Rick Santorum.

The Times reported Tuesday that Santorum was suspending his campaign rather than restarting it after a four-day layoff. The former Pennsylvania senator spent much of Easter weekend with his ailing 3-year-old daughter Isabella, who was just discharged from the hospital. Now he'll focus on retiring his campaign debts rather than trying to move into the Oval Office.

Santorum's move, which comes days after Gingrich acknowledged publicly that he had virtually no chance of winning the nomination, effectively ensures Mitt Romney a place on the November ballot opposite President Obama. Granted, supporters of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) argue that Paul's campaign is doing far better than the media suggest. But could Paul beat Romney in a head-to-head race for the GOP nomination? Really?

So what, then, did Santorum accomplish on his rise from niche candidate to second place? On the plus side, he tried to turn the discussion about the economy away from a simplistic debate about tax rates for the rich and toward an exploration of how to restore upward mobility for the working class. I'm not much of a fan of his policy prescriptions -- eliminating taxes on manufacturing would only encourage the misallocation of assets and gamesmanship about what fits into that favored category. But it was the right kind of discussion to have.

On the minus side, Santorum's late emergence as a more conservative alternative to Romney didn't seem to make Romney a more compelling candidate. By the time Santorum surged past a struggling Gingrich, the debates were over. The race was squarely in the name-calling phase, with Romney and his surrogates challenging Santorum's conservative credentials (because he supported pork-barrel projects and -- gasp! -- voted to raise the debt ceiling), and Santorum blasting Romney for supporting an individual mandate to buy health insurance in Massachusetts and for allegedly lacking a vision for the country.

Santorum's right that Romney hasn't offered a distinctive theme for his leadership. He's come across as more of a Mr. Fix-It than a visionary, someone who responds to events rather than pulling the country in a particular direction. But that critique didn't prompt Romney to make a better case for his leadership qualities. Instead, the main thing Santorum seems to have inspired Romney and his supporters to do is spend a lot more money on negative ads.

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COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Presidential Election 2012

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