What Is Rick Santorum's End Game?

With even many of his supporters admitting, he's finished, how will Santorum campaign from here -- and why?

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Rick Santorum speaks in Mars, Pennsylvania, after losses in three primaries Tuesday. Reuters

Rick Santorum is about to face the longest three weeks of his political career.

The Republican primary's underdog may have finally watched his presidential hopes evaporate Tuesday night, swept away in a trio of contests that were won by all-but-inevitable nominee Mitt Romney. Santorum now has to wait until the end of the month before the next primaries, in a quintet of states on April 24, including his home state of Pennsylvania -- an interminable 21-day delay before he could potentially reclaim momentum.

Santorum reiterated Tuesday night that he will carry on with his campaign, saying it's only "halftime" in the quest for delegates. But with the Republican establishment already rallying behind Romney's candidacy -- and with President Obama now attacking the former Massachusetts governor by name -- Santorum could soon find himself ignored by a party eager to set its sights on the current White House occupant. He is no longer fighting to win the nomination; he's fighting to stay relevant.

"The media is going to start to ignore him," said Ed Rollins, a longtime Republican strategist. "I think pretty soon, the stories will start being written that he's not relevant, and that's about where it's getting with Santorum."

Finally banishing the former Pennsylvania senator to political oblivion would allow Romney to begin repairing the favorability ratings that have been damaged by several months of negative primary campaigning. And, focusing on the general election would come just at the right time for Romney, who was criticized by name during a blistering speech by Obama earlier Tuesday. That bully-pulpit smackdown -- Obama's most direct attack to date on his likely opponent -- was paired with a new ad that also assailed Romney by name.

Now that the White House has evidently pivoted toward the general election, Romney is hurt exponentially each day he has to focus on a primary rival.

Santorum's campaign has been counted out before, after losses in the Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois primaries. But Tuesday's defeats, especially in the battleground of Wisconsin, could deliver a harsher blow because the rest of the Republican Party, including a bevy of influential former and current elected officials, have decided to look to the general election.

Since winning the Illinois primary on March 20, Romney secured endorsements from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson. Other Republicans, like South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, have stopped short of an endorsement but have said publicly that it's time for conservatives to rally behind Romney.

"A lot of people are starting to say if Romney wins Wisconsin, maybe it's time to consider coalescing, because the most important thing is beating Obama," said Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad in an interview.

The list of Romney supporters would likely swell further after his Badger State win. Branstad himself, who has been neutral in the primary, told National Journal he would "reassess" whether to endorse as soon as Wednesday if he determines it's time to "bring our party together."

It's not just people who are signaling it's time for Santorum to leave the race -- polls also indicate his time is nearly up. Romney has led the Gallup national tracking poll since mid-February, but of late he's taken a commanding lead over his Pennsylvania rival. Tuesday's report showed him at 41 percent support nationally, a 16-point edge over his opponent.

Polls of upcoming primary states haven't brought good news for Santorum, either. Even as his campaign gears up for a contest in his home state, which Santorum has called a must-win, multiple surveys indicate he's far from a lock there. A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday showed him winning by only 6 percentage points in Pennsylvania, 41 percent to 35 percent, a week after another survey showed Santorum up just 2 points.

A loss in the Keystone State, coupled with likely defeats on the same day in New York, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, could at long last force Santorum to exit the race.

"You don't want to lose your home state," Branstad said. "I do think it may be appropriate after the results are in to reassess and decide what makes the most sense not only for himself, but for the future of the country."

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Alex Roarty is a politics writer for National Journal.

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