As Delegate Gap Widens, Santorum Plugs On

With Mitt Romney ever closer to nailing down the delegates he needs for the Republican presidential nomination, what is his next closest rival — Rick Santorum — to do? Audie Cornish talks to top Santorum strategist John Braebender.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

While most of the media attention today focused on Mitt Romney's speech here in Washington, Rick Santorum was also on the campaign trail in his home state of Pennsylvania. And once again, he was answering questions about whether he should drop out.

RICK SANTORUM: I think I've endured about eight months of people saying that. Everyone has been asking me from the days I was driving around in the Chuck Truck in Iowa, to get out of the race.

CORNISH: Pennsylvania is a place Santorum was expected to win, but his lead in the polls has slipped. We turn now to the top political adviser to the Santorum campaign - John Braebender. John, welcome to the program.

JOHN BRAEBENDER: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: This morning on CNN, we heard John McCain saying - this is a quote - that "Rick Santorum, whether he stays in or not, is now basically irrelevant." And this is someone who the campaign is at times compared itself to in terms of having a come-behind win for the nomination. What's your response to this?

BRAEBENDER: Well, first of all, I think that we try much harder to probably compare ourselves to Ronald Reagan's campaign, where he was sort of trusted conservatism and took that to win back the White House for Republicans in 1980. I have a great deal of respect for Senator McCain for all he's done for this country. But based on his last presidential experiences where he wrapped up the nomination in March, I'm not sure we should probably be taking our advice from him on how to win this year's election.

CORNISH: He also makes the point, though, that every day that goes by without being in general-election-campaign mode is a day lost to the potential nominee, and he's talking about Governor Romney here. And how is Rick Santorum handling these calls to leave the race and essentially the argument that he could be doing more damage than good to the eventual nominee?

BRAEBENDER: Well, I think one of the things we do is first point to the last election where the Republicans wrapped up their nomination in March, and the Democrats did not wrap theirs up till June, and then the Democrats went on to win. What...

CORNISH: But arguably the Democrats in that race were far closer in the delegate race to each other?

BRAEBENDER: Yeah. We're only about halfway through. Second of all, is there's really some questions about how big the delegate lead is. Right now, I know Governor Romney includes winning Florida and Arizona as winner-take-all. That's not by the RNC rules how that will happen. We now are hearing stories today out of Texas that they may go winner-take-all, which could be as many as 155 delegates in one single day. We have huge states, like Pennsylvania, New York and California, that have not weighed in yet.

We knew this would be a tough battle. And frankly, we acknowledged that Governor Romney is ahead, but I think it would be a mistake for anybody to just say, well, we're halfway through the contest, let's call it. We would never do that with the Super Bowl. And I'm not sure why we would do that here.

CORNISH: Given that, looking at Pennsylvania, this is a state that very much could be the last stand for your candidate, correct? I mean...

BRAEBENDER: I will say that for either candidate, but probably more for us. I do believe we do have to win...

CORNISH: I mean, in the past, you said Pennsylvania is a make-or-break state for both candidates, but it seems particularly for former Senator Santorum. I mean, this is a state where he lost re-election in 2006 by the largest margin of any incumbent since 1980. If he lost Pennsylvania, is that enough to have him bow out of this race?

BRAEBENDER: Well, I would say that there are two states that we have to win. We have to win Pennsylvania, and we have to win Texas. I think there's no doubt about those. I think that's possible to do. But, you know, the senator has made it very clear. If there comes a time where we know Governor Romney is going to make 1,144 as far as the number of delegates, certainly, we are going to support him and rally behind him. But...

CORNISH: So is that the benchmark, though? I mean, basically, do you stay in no matter what is happening because he hasn't reached the magic number?

BRAEBENDER: Well, now, I mean, we'll use a lot of judgment and say do we believe realistically he's going to get there based upon the states and so forth. But what we do believe is it's way too early to make that call. We think that Pennsylvania and Texas could be certainly potential game changers. And, you know, there's other one thing you've got to remember. Rick Santorum is an Italian kid from a steel town who does not run away from a good fight. And I would think most people would want to make sure that their president is somebody who's going to have to go eye to eye with Ahmadinejad and all these events that they're going to have worry about, that they're not somebody who just simply folds their tent and goes when things aren't always going the best that they can. I think they have to show some toughness and I think that they're going to see that from Rick Santorum, who's not going to be afraid, to run away from what still is a good fight against Mitt Romney.

CORNISH: John Braebender. He's the top political advisor for Rick Santorum. He joined us from New York. John, thank you so much for talking with us.

BRAEBENDER: Oh, I very much appreciate you having me on.

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