Inside Rick Santorum's Alternate Reality

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Everyone is telling the Republican presidential candidate the contest is over and he can't win it. But he's not going anywhere anytime soon.

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Reuters

There was a time when Rick Santorum and his team were resigned to losing the Republican presidential primary.

Surveying the harsh realities of the landscape the campaign faced, the candidate and his staff began to discuss what the most dignified and artful way to exit the race would be. It was time, they figured, to accept that they'd done their best and fallen short.

"As late as December, we were already talking about 'Oh well, we did our best, maybe we can try again in four or eight years,'" a Santorum campaign insider told me. "And then the Iowa surge hit."

Three months and 11 wins later, as Santorum continues to prosecute a race he has almost certainly lost, such talk is banished within his tight-knit circle. The mood, according to multiple sources inside the campaign and close to Santorum, is one of defiant optimism. Ever since Iowa, after all, they've basically been playing with house money. In fact, the Santorum campaign seems these days to inhabit an alternate reality -- one with its own logic, its own perspective and even its own mathematical rules.

The pressure on Santorum has become intense. National Republican Party leaders and heavyweight Mitt Romney supporters have been calling nonstop, "encouraging him to be the better guy and they'll help him do whatever he wants to do," the insider said. But Santorum, who's made a career of bucking the GOP establishment, is unbowed.

Instead, his campaign is working to shore up and inventory its stock of delegates, reaching out to unbound delegates and superdelegates, trying to get them to go public to bolster the impression that Santorum isn't the only one who believes there's still hope.

"The bottom line is, this guy's a fighter," the insider said. "From Day One people have been telling him, 'Get out, get out.' But you're less inclined to believe the national media writing you off" when you've heard it so many times before.

To be sure, tempers are getting a bit frayed as the campaign's version of reality bumps up against that of the wider world.

Nowhere was that more evident than in Santorum's clash on Sunday with the mild-mannered New York Times scribe Jeff Zeleny, who had asked him to clarify his latest scorching attack on Romney. Leaning across the barrier that separated them, shaking his head and pointing, Santorum radiated a palpable fury. "Stop lying," he said. "Quit distorting my words. ... C'mon, man, what are you doing?" Rather than move on, Santorum kept coming back at Zeleny, who stoically chewed gum as restive members of the crowd rumbled their disapproval.

The reporter in this interaction seemed a stand-in for the gelling media consensus that it's over for Santorum, a consensus he sees as a fabrication of the Romney campaign and angrily refuses to allow inside his increasingly bunkered worldview. But Santorum isn't really angry at the media -- he's angry at the facts.

And the facts are stubborn. By one calculation, Santorum would need to win three-quarters of the delegates at stake in the rest of the primaries to close the gap. On Meet the Press on Sunday, former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour said, "Unless Romney steps on a land mine, he looks like he's be the nominee." It's as if Santorum heard that statement and said, "See, I told you there's a chance!"

Santorum and his team wouldn't be so angry if they didn't think there was still a real possibility they could prevail. By contrast, look at Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich, who seem to be enjoying playing out the string with no sense of urgency about the losses they're piling up. "I'm cheerful about going forward," Gingrich said on Friday -- speaking like a man who'd come thoroughly to terms with being out of contention.

Santorum, on the other hand, is genuinely frustrated that his sense of possibility is not more widely shared.

"We're not out there making wild claims. We're not saying we're [ahead] right now," Santorum strategist Hogan Gidley told me. "We're saying this can be done. There's still a lot to play out here, a lot of votes to be given. It's going to take winning some states and getting some delegates. ... We've got a path. Romney says nobody else can get to 1,144 [delegates], but neither can he."

"Romney says nobody else can get to 1,144 delegates, but neither can he."

Santorum is still winning states, after all -- on Saturday, he beat Romney in Louisiana by a nearly two-to-one margin, 49 percent to 27 percent. He still draws sizable crowds to his campaign appearances -- hundreds of supporters who still believe, who tell him his voice is needed, who implore him not to give up. And he is still the target of a vigorous negative campaign from Romney and his allies.

"If this were inevitable, what would Mitt Romney be doing buying millions of dollars in ads in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin?" Gidley said. "If this is over, what's he doing?"

Chip Saltsman, who managed Mike Huckabee's 2008 campaign and is close to many in Santorum's orbit, said Santorum's team is not laboring under any illusions. "They know how hard this is. They get it," he said. "Are they staying in it for the right reasons, giving Republican primary voters a choice? I think they are."

In 2008, Saltsman recalled, Huckabee stayed in the race long after the race had been unofficially called by the establishment and chattering classes. "We didn't appreciate people trying to get us out of the race, and I'm not going to be critical of another campaign for doing exactly what we did," Saltsman told me. "They feel like the nomination's up for grabs and they're competing for every delegate."

Nonetheless, Saltsman admitted he doesn't share the view that the nomination is still within Santorum's reach, and he fretted about the nasty tone of Santorum's rhetoric against Romney. "As long as Senator Santorum is out there competing based on ideas and truly thinks he's got a shot at this thing, it's fine," he said. "As long as it doesn't become a mudfest, trying to tear other people down. You've got one chance to get out of a race gracefully."

Despite the recent win, Santorum faces daunting odds, to say the least. His victory in Louisiana netted him just five more delegates than Romney. The next round of primaries comes on April 3; Romney is the early favorite in Wisconsin and Maryland, and Santorum failed to make the ballot in Washington, D.C. On April 24, Pennsylvania and four Northeastern states vote in what's likely to be viewed as Santorum's last stand.

But those close to him say Santorum is driven by a motivation deeper than delegate math -- a mindset, indeed, that finds talk of delegate math offensive compared to the larger stakes.

"There is a formal [campaign] operation that involves things like ballot access and delegate counts, but really it's Rick's sense of mission that is propelling the campaign," said Jeff Coleman, a Republican strategist and former state legislator in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, who began his career as an intern in Santorum's congressional office in 1994 and remains a friend of the former senator.

"You see the level of emotional connection he is making with these crowds," Coleman added. When Santorum spoke the night of the Illinois primary, for example, it was to a crowd so overflowing in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, that he had to give the speech twice so those outside the ballroom could hear it too. "They weren't regular elephant-brooch, country-club Republicans," Coleman said. "They were people who heard about it on the radio and came straight from work."

Those expecting Santorum to listen to reason and fall in line don't understand who, and what, they are dealing with. From his very first run for Congress, members of his own party have been telling Santorum to wait his turn and run for lower office instead. "There was always a sense of who was Rick, what right did he have," Coleman said. "People think this is a new brashness or audacity. But there's never been a set of Republican rules that applied to Rick."

It's precisely that authenticity, that instinctual, gut-driven quality, that draws people to Santorum, Coleman noted. "People say he needs to be more cautious, more reserved, more researched. But that would have produced another Tim Pawlenty candidacy."

Many of Santorum's fiercest loyalists are grass-roots conservatives who feel they've been continually sold out by a party establishment that doesn't respect them. By continuing to beat up on Santorum, Coleman argued, it's Romney, not Santorum, who is damaging Republican unity and the party's prospects for victory in November.

Those around Santorum say he is not oblivious to the way things look for him. "He is continually evaluating and reevaluating. As long as the door is cracked and he sees the path, he'll be very aggressive about pursuing that path," Coleman said.

But as for making a calculated decision to quit the race, his friend doesn't see it happening anytime soon.

"I think," Coleman said, "he makes that decision when somebody else accepts the nomination from the podium."

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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