DANA MILBANK

Santorum surrenders at Gettysburg

Posted April 12, 2012, at 12:02 p.m.

Three weeks ago, Rick Santorum chose this Civil War town to give a defiant speech about his need to stay in the presidential race, linking his struggle against Mitt Romney to “the things that the people in this battlefield just down the road fought for.”

Recalling the blood shed at Gettysburg, he exhorted more than 1,000 supporters: “That’s why we must go out and fight this fight.”

But if Santorum thought he was George Meade rallying the Union forces, he turned out to be leading Pickett’s charge — the disastrous Confederate offensive here at which Gen. George Pickett lost half of his division and the war turned against the South. Santorum lost the Wisconsin and Maryland primaries, his poll numbers plunged, his money dried up, conservative and Republican Party leaders urged him to quit and he canceled a string of campaign events.

After calling off his first two appearances Tuesday, Santorum rolled into the Gettysburg Hotel — the same spot where he gave his Gettysburg Address three weeks ago — for what the campaign had said in a Facebook posting would be a “Rally for Rick.” This time, however, he was bumped from the ballroom by a convention of district attorneys and had to settle for a small conference room with seats for 20 reporters.

Even in defeat, Santorum sounded defiant, not even mentioning Romney in his 15-minute speech. “We made a decision over the weekend that while this presidential race for us is over for me, and we will suspend our campaign effective today, we are not done fighting,” he announced, standing with some family members in front of a wrinkled American flag (an aide brought an iron, but there hadn’t been enough time to use it).

Recalling his “game on!” exclamation after the Iowa caucuses, Santorum added: “I know a lot of folks are going to write, maybe those even at the White House, ‘game over.’ But this game is a long, long, long way from over.”

But for all the tough talk, Santorum’s once-fiery presidential bid went out like a candle Tuesday here in his home state. His campaign, always a shoestring operation, spent its final day in disarray. After a long weekend off while Santorum’s young daughter Bella was treated in a hospital, the campaign canceled Tuesday’s events overnight — so late that aides neglected to update the schedule on his website. Several of Santorum’s supporters showed up at his morning event at a sportsman’s club in Bedford, Pa., but found not so much as a Santorum sign.

The campaign then scheduled its Gettysburg “rally” for 2 p.m. But this, too, turned out to be bad information. The few supporters who showed up were told by hotel workers that the event was only for the media. “They advertise it that he’s going to be here so you can see him!” Santorum supporter Frank Johnston complained at the hotel’s reception desk.

That was the least of the complaints Santorum has been hearing. Sen. John McCain said last week that “it’s time for a graceful exit.” Southern Baptist official Richard Land, who rallied a group of religious conservatives to endorse Santorum, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that Santorum “ought to seriously consider leaving the race.” Even Newt Gingrich, who had attacked Romney savagely, has shifted to the past tense: “Turns out he had more things to hit with than I did.”

Although he faced defeat in Pennsylvania’s April 24 primary, Santorum was disinclined to listen — right up until the time he took the stage Tuesday afternoon at a lectern still bearing his “Join the Fight” slogan.

Santorum flashed a goofy grin and raised his eyebrows as he entered. He spoke about his ill daughter, his grandfather in the coal mines, his sweater vests and topics from Iran to the “moral enterprise that is America.” The closest he came to supporting Romney was a vow to “make sure that we defeat President Barack Obama.” (He ignored shouted questions about whether he would endorse Romney.)

With his trademark bravado, he boasted of accomplishing “things that no political expert would have ever expected.” And he compared himself to another politician who once visited Gettysburg. “What I tried to bring to the battle was what Abraham Lincoln brought to this battlefield back in 1863 on November 19th,” Santorum said. “He talked about this country being conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Yes, Santorum, like Lincoln, spoke at Gettysburg. But it’s a safe bet that the world will little note nor long remember Santorum’s version.

Dana Milbank’s email address is danamilbank@washpost.com.

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