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The Rick Santorum in 2016 Theory

The Rick Santorum in 2016 Theory

A Rick Santorum spokesman only added to speculation Tuesday that although the former Pennsylvania senator has dropped out of the race for president, he might be back.

Santorum himself was asked Sunday by Fox News' Chris Wallace whether he might "come back in 2016 as the front runner." Santorum swore, though, "I'm not thinking about the future." But that's not what his spokesman said Tuesday after Santorum suspended his campaign in the face of weakening poll numbers in his home state of Pennsylvania in its April 24 primary, and with a sick child just home from the hospital.

MSNBC's Chris Matthews asked Hogan Gidley, communications director for what remains of the Santorum campaign, whether the candidate had gone about raking in 11 states all to build up credibility as a contender for a potential run in 2016.

"Is he going to run in 2016?" Matthews asked on Hardball. "Is that what this is all about?"

"I'm not going to say we haven't talked about it," Gidley said, conflicting with what Santorum had said just days before. "Of course, you look and you say, what are we going to do in the future? And there are a lot of things thrown out there. A lot of people want him to do certain things. A lot of people have said prepare for 2016."

LGBT activists were already surprised that Santorum could win in 2012, nevermind in 2016. The Log Cabin Republicans issued a statement cheering his departure Tuesday as the end of "divisive social politics" in this election cycle. But the staunchly antigay candidate's rise demonstrates that political use of homophobia is far from a thing of the past. (Read more in The Advocate's current cover story.

Romney himself is an example of a Republican tendency to nominate the person who has waited his turn, and who has often made a previous unsuccessful run. In 2008, Romney won 11 contests, the same as Santorum has done this time. Even Ronald Reagan had a failed run once before finally winning the nomination the next cycle. And Santorum likes to compare himself to Reagan and what he sees as the party's mistake in passing him over, leading to the rise of Jimmy Carter.

Gidley also said there's still a chance voters could see Santorum's name on the 2012 ballot. Asked whether Romney has him on the short list for vice president, Gidley speculated, "He might be." And then he made the case that Santorum has earned the trust of a certain set of voters who maybe don't see Romney as their ally. "Somebody needs to be on the ticket who says, hey, I can go into the lions den," Gidley told Matthews.

A Santorum vice presidential run would only further cement him as an early frontrunner in 2016 should Obama win. The Human Rights Campaign first warned about the prospect of Santorum being picked as a vice-presidential candidate after he won Iowa. Then he kept winning states and taking with him evangelical and born-again Christian voters who haven't warmed to Romney.

As a rule during the primary season, Romney lost in any state where exit polls showed a majority of voters were evangelical. And either Gingrich or Santorum took advantage — more often, Santorum.

Furthering the possibility of a Santorum pick for VP were the candidate's own comments at the end of March. During an appearance on the Christian Broadcasting Network, he was asked whether he'd serve as vice president on a Romney ticket.

"Of course," he said, which isn't how most contenders answer that question. Usually they sidestep and say they're focused on running for president. "As I always say, this is the most important race in our country's history," he went on. "I'm going to do everything I can. I'm doing everything I can." Then adding, "I'll do whatever is necessary to help our country."

As most candidates do when they bow out, Santorum pledged Tuesday to fight onward.

"While this presidential race for us is over," he said, "for me, and we will suspend our campaign effective today, we are not done fighting."

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