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Santorum stakes his future on Pennsylvania

"Time and time again, the Republican establishment and aristocracy have shoved [moderate Republicans] down the throats of the Republican Party and people across this country."

-- Rick Santorum speaking in Mars, Pa., in remarks to supporters amid primary losses in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Wisconsin. 

Mitt Romney needs to win 42 percent of the remaining Republican delegates to clinch his party's nomination. He has won 58 percent of the delegates so far and is on track to hit the magic number on or before June 5. 

By comparison, Rick Santorum, has won a quarter of the delegates so far and would need to win 74 percent of those that are left to win. 

But Santorum's quest is increasingly not about winning the nomination, but vindicating himself in his former home state of Pennsylvania. With his hopes of blocking Romney from the nomination fading fast, Santorum must now consider how he will close his role in one of the longest and perhaps the bitterest primary battle in recent Republican history. 

It would be hard for Santorum to now make a graceful exit in the name of party unity, having fought Romney with such ferocity and convincing supporters of what he says are the dangers of nominating the former Massachusetts governor. 

He can't keep alive the prospect of winning unless he promises to take the fight to the bitter end, but each day that Santorum spends vowing to never give up makes his eventual departure all the harder to arrange. 

Santorum was very much on the attack against Romney in Wisconsin, leading up to that state's primary. But he fell short in his bid to derail his party's frontrunner, losing in the Badger State as well as Maryland and D.C. on Tuesday. As Republicans tire of a process now widely understood to have damaged their chances to defeat President Obama, it becomes increasingly difficult for Santorum to make his case that it would be wise to continue the fight until August. 

But when he gave his speech on Tuesday night, his attacks were all oblique. His speech had a few rueful lines about aristocrats and moderates, but was mostly an ode to the state he lived in for much of his life and represented in Congress for 16 years: the Liberty Bell, beating the Nazis with Alleghany steel and Washington's endurance at Valley Forge. 

Santorum made no mention of the other contests, with no grace notes for supporters in those places nor any words of congratulations to Romney. It was all about Pennsylvania, one of five states that will vote in the next round of Republican primaries on April 24. 

Pennsylvania poses a special risk and a special reward for Santorum. 

If he remains in the race for three more weeks as Romney and Obama continue to wage a general-election battle, Santorum might find himself crowded out of the national discussion. But if he focuses all of his attention on his former home state, Santorum could do what Gingrich did in Georgia on Super Tuesday and win a symbolic victory as a favorite son. 

This would be a vindication for Santorum who left Pennsylvania politics in unhappy fashion. 

His opponents have often pointed out the huge loss Santorum suffered in his bid for a third term in the Senate, an 18-point drubbing at the hands of moderate Democrat Bob Casey, Jr. The loss came amid anger from Republicans at Santorum's decision to compromise on his ideological views to endorse Arlen Specter, then a Republican, over Pat Toomey in 2004. 

Santorum sided with Specter on the grounds of electablility and preserving his seniority in the Senate. Toomey nearly won anyway, but was edged out in part because Santorum urged social conservatives to support the socially liberal incumbent. Toomey would go on to win the seat in 2010 after Specter, who switched parties and delivered a decisive vote for Obama's health law, was defeated in a Democratic primary. 

The pain of Santorum's 2006 defeat was magnified by the attacks on him as an absentee senator. Pittsburgh-area reporters and the Casey campaign made much of the fact that Santorum and his family lived in Virginia and were seldom in the state. 

It's bad to lose. It's worse to lose by a massive margin amid charges of betraying the party faithful and neglecting your constituents. 

If Santorum can pull of a win in Pennsylvania against Romney, it wouldn't change the trajectory of the presidential race, but it would be a major political rehabilitation for the former senator. That would leave open the prospect of a future statewide run, but more importantly, would let Santorum wash away some of the mark left by 2006. 

But to try to get there, Santorum is taking a huge risk. If he loses in his former home state not only would it be an ignominious end to his surprisingly successful presidential run, but it would also magnify the 2004 Specter endorsement and 2006 defeat. 

And while Santorum is free to focus on Pennsylvania for three weeks, so is Romney. The other states voting on April 24 look out of reach for a staunch social conservative. New York, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island are solid territory for the moderate former New England governor, giving Romney the liberty to devote his time to Pennsylvania and delivering a knockout blow to his foe. 

It's good general-election politics too. Pennsylvania is a swing state and Romney, as he did in Wisconsin, can use the primary campaign to steal a march on Obama for the fall. The time and money Romney spends in Pennsylvania now helps in November. 

And unlike Gingrich in Georgia, it is hard for Santorum to argue that his former home state could launch him toward the nomination. When Gingrich was campaigning in Georgia ahead of Super Tuesday, 87 percent of the delegates were yet to be awarded. Now it's 49 percent, and Santorum has had to make a tacit admission that he is unlikely to win outright. 

That leaves Santorum having to ask his former constituents for a mostly symbolic victory that would be a final repudiation of moderate Republicanism but also an affirmation of his candidacy and a valedictory for his campaign. Gingrich didn't have to go there. It might work in the part of the state where he grew up and represented in the House. It's a hard sell, however, in the eastern half of the state. 

But Santorum and his team know Pennsylvania politics well and won't likely face the avalanche of high-profile local endorsements they did in Wisconsin. So Santorum may get be able to dig his way to a more propitious departure from the race and write a new ending for his Pennsylvania political career. 


And Now, A Word From Charles 

"I think right now, it's clear who the nominee is going to be. And the question is -- I think people are going to have to think of their future and their legacy. 

And I think resisting now, at a time when the race has been really rough on the brand, on the Republican brand, and diminished it and hurt our chances -- I speak as a Republican. In September, I thought the odds were 2-to-1 on winning the presidency. Now it's about 50-50, and it shouldn't be, given the economy. I think after all that, it's obvious. It's over. It should be over." 

-- Charles Krauthammer on an election-night special edition of "Special Report with Bret Baier."


Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as digital politics editor based in Washington, D.C.  Additionally, he authors the daily "Fox News First” political news note and hosts “Power Play,” a feature video series, on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on the network, including "The Kelly File," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace.”  He also provides expert political analysis for Fox News coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.