Rick Santorum ended his improbable run for the White House on Tuesday after leading a Republican tilt to the right that could dog the more moderate frontrunner, Mitt Romney, in November’s US presidential election.
Trailing in polls and fundraising, the conservative former US senator from Pennsylvania suspended his campaign and cleared the way for Romney to clinch the nomination to face US President Barack Obama in the Nov. 6 general election.
A staunch social conservative with a penchant for sleeveless sweaters, Santorum was the underdog who clawed his way to near the top of the Republican race and won the first nominating contest in Iowa this year by a thread.
His rise forced the issues of birth control and the role of Christianity in public life to the forefront of the campaign, frustrating Romney, a former private equity executive who sought to keep the focus on the economy.
During his exit speech on Tuesday, Santorum again reached out to the working class and the Republican Party’s right wing, which he had courted throughout the campaign with his focus on manufacturing, religion and conservative family values.
“Over and over again we were told: ‘Forget it, you can’t win.’ We were winning, but in a different way. We were touching hearts; we were raising issues that frankly a lot of people didn’t want to have raised,” Santorum said at a news conference in a hotel near the US Civil War battlefield site of Gettysburg.
Santorum’s exit leaves the stage free for a two-man fight between Romney and Democrat Obama for the presidency.
That contest intensified on Tuesday when Obama’s campaign accused the multimillionaire Romney of not paying his “fair share” of taxes and tried to paint the Republican as an elitist.
Romney campaigned in Wilmington, Delaware, where he met with women who owned small businesses and called Obama’s handling of the economy a failure.
On Santorum, Romney said the news about his rival was unexpected. He added that Santorum has been an important voice and would continue to play a major role in the Republican Party.
“This has been a good day for me,” Romney said.
Santorum proved to be a more formidable opponent to Romney than many expected, especially in light of a historic 18 percentage-point defeat during his US Senate re-election bid in Pennsylvania in 2006.
His vocal opposition to gay marriage and abortion offered Republican voters a stark contrast with former Massachusetts governor Romney’s more moderate record.
Romney moved to the right on social issues to try to outflank Santorum. Now Romney, and Republican congressional candidates, could have some difficulty in November, when the overall electorate will be more moderate.
“When voters are interested in the economy, Rick Santorum was talking about socially conservative issues ... and that would take us off message. That would take the whole party off message,” Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said.
Santorum lagged Romney in opinion polls and in the fight for the 1,144 party delegates needed to win the Republican nomination.