Santorum's Campaign Was Full Of Surprise Twists

Looking back on the Rick Santorum campaign can turn into a retrospective on the whole Republican nominating campaign, which now looks to be over.

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When he jumped in to the presidential race last June, Rick Santorum was one more name on a long list of hopefuls. He hadn't held office since 2006 when he lost his U.S. Senate seat. But as others fell by the wayside, Santorum held on. He won in Iowa and 10 other states and emerged as party conservatives' last best hope for stopping front-runner Mitt Romney.

Now that Santorum has bowed out of the race, NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea has this look back.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Month after month last year, Rick Santorum traveled Iowa. Usually with no one but a driver, he hit all 99 counties. Audiences were small, sometimes just a couple of people, but he kept going. This was in Waterloo, where he likened himself to a famous children's book.

RICK SANTORUM: "The Little Engine that Could," lots of shiny engines always going by. So you just hitch it up and keep going.

GONYEA: Santorum talked about conservative social issues; his opposition to abortion and gay marriage. When he spoke of the economy, he linked it to the need to promote families and Christian values.

SANTORUM: We cannot have a strong economy unless we have strong families and strong faith in this country.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: In televised debates, Santorum's low poll numbers consigned him to the far end of a crowded stage. He'd complain about not getting questions, but he tried to make an impression in the moments he got. Take this encounter with Mitt Romney back in October.

MITT ROMNEY: This is something that was crafted for Massachusetts. It would be wrong to adopt this as a nation.

SANTORUM: That's not what you said, Governor.

ROMNEY: You're shaking your head.

SANTORUM: Governor, that's not what you said.

ROMNEY: That happens to be...

SANTORUM: It was in your book that it should be for everybody.

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: (Unintelligible) took it out of your book.

SANTORUM: They took it out of your book.

ROMNEY: His turn. His turn, OK...

GONYEA: In the summer and fall, other candidates took turns as the top challenger to Romney: first Michelle Bachmann, then Rick Perry, then Herman Cain, then Newt Gingrich. One after another, they stumbled. Santorum's turn came in late December with a slow rise in the polls, then a surge. Then came caucus night in Iowa.

SANTORUM: Game on.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: Suddenly, Santorum was a bona fide contender, portraying himself as the conservative in the race; a candidate of the right, who, like Ronald Reagan, could beat a Democratic incumbent. Evangelical voters rallied behind him, so did the Tea Party.

But the moment came too late for Santorum to raise enough money to compete in the rush of January primaries. He lost in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, then rebounded in February with unexpected wins in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado. That put fear in the Romney camp and brought a torrent of anti Santorum ads.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: In 20 years in Washington, Santorum voted to raise the debt limit five times and for billions in wasteful spending, including the Bridge to Nowhere. Santorum...

GONYEA: Those ads took a toll. Santorum still didn't have the financing to respond effectively. Also, he often strayed from his core message, arguing about gay marriage with activists and protestors who showed up at his town halls or attacking President Obama on the question of college education.

SANTORUM: President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: Polls showed such moments hurt him with independent voters. Santorum's last best hope was to overtake Romney in Michigan and Ohio. Each was very, very close, but each time, Romney won. There was pressure for Santorum to drop out for the sake of party unity. For weeks, he resisted. But after a mixed bag of wins in the South and more loses in the Midwest, he could see the delegate math had become insurmountable. Last night in Pennsylvania, at the final event of his final day in the race, he was asked, what now?

SANTORUM: I'd like to get some sleep, would be a good thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: He'll put his campaign's trademark, the Santorum branded sweater vest, away too. But the surprise success of his late run in the primaries has given Santorum a future in the national conversation. Whether he becomes part of a Republican administration or a candidate for office, he will be a leading voice for social conservatives, much as Sarah Palin became in 2008. It's a role Santorum will eagerly embrace wherever it takes him next. Don Gonyea, NPR News.

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