Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum suspended his run for White House on Tuesday, ending what in the last few months proved at times to be hand-to-hand combat with his chief rival, Mitt Romney. Now, key evangelicals are weighing in on his decision and whether Romney can rally social conservatives.
"We are at a critical time in this election season," said Gary Bauer, a former GOP presidential candidate who had endorsed Santorum. "I was in the meeting with Rick last week and I could sense the decision weighing heavily on him. It's now up to the Romney campaign to bring together the supporters of Santorum, Bachman, Perry, Gingrich and others to fight the war in front of them this November. And each and every vote will be critical."
Santorum phoned Romney just prior to making his formal announcement to advise him of his decision to suspend the campaign and his former challenger wasted no time in congratulating him on a hard-fought race.
"Senator Santorum is an able and worthy competitor, and I congratulate him on the campaign he ran," Romney said in a written statement. "He has proven himself to be an important voice in our party and in the nation. We both recognize that what is most important is putting the failures of the last three years behind us and setting America back on the path to prosperity."
Santorum, who began the race in a crowded field and at the back of the pack, rose to front-runner status after outlasting other conservative Republicans such as Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
"I walked out after the Iowa caucus victory and said game on," Santorum said Tuesday. "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. We are going to continue to go out there and fight to make sure that we defeat President Barack Obama."
Ralph Reed, who heads up Faith and Freedom Coalition did not endorse Santorum in the primary but believes his role in the GOP race was important.
"Rick Santorum entered this race at the bottom of the polls and leaves after winning millions of votes and 11 states, the most primary victories by a grassroots conservative candidate since Reagan in 1976," Reed told The Christian Post in an email. "He has elevated his stature and will be an important leader for Republicans and conservatives in years to come. My guess is we haven't heard the last from Rick Santorum."
Dr. Richard Land, who last week in an exclusive interview with The Christian Post suggested that Santorum consider getting out of the race, said his decision was a good one.
"It was a wise move on his part and it shows he is a mature leader," Land told CP from Washington. "He has run a solid campaign the last six months and resurrected himself once again as a major political figure in our nation.
"This is the most important election in our nation since 1860 and we need time to vet and access the statements and beliefs of the two men who will be representing our country's two major parties."
Santorum's unwavering commitment to conservative causes such as fighting abortion and supporting traditional marriage made him popular among evangelical Christians, many of whom worked tirelessly to support him.
At the same time, more moderate Republicans often criticized Santorum as being "too far right" and "unelectable" against President Obama.
Polls clearly showed that in states where evangelical voters comprised over 50 percent of the GOP primary vote, Santorum came away victorious. But in states where evangelicals fell below the 50 percent mark, Romney usually won.
Penny Nance, who heads up Concerned Women for America, had personally endorsed Santorum but now sees the need for the Romney camp to reach out to conservative women. "I personally threw my support to Rick but I've said all along that I will support the Republican nominee," Nance told CP. "I would encourage Gov. Romney to reach out to conservative women since they are the ones who get on the phones and do tons of volunteer work."
Michelle Smith of Texas has been working for Santorum for almost a year and believes the evangelical vote is key. "Gov. Romney needs to find a strong conservative to walk beside him as VP," Smith said to CP.
The campaign's decision to "suspend," instead of officially end the campaign is important since it allows Santorum to continue raising money to retire campaign debt. It also allows him to keep his committed delegates until they are formally released by the campaign.
"Millions of voters flocked to Rick not because he was a Republican, but because he passionately articulated the connection between America's financial greatness and its moral and cultural wholeness," said Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council in a written statement. "He realizes that real problem-solving starts with an understanding that the economy and the family are indivisible."
In recent weeks Santorum began losing ground to Romney, both in delegates and key Republican endorsements. And although some leading moderate and mainstream GOP operatives had been suggesting Santorum bow out of the race, last week one of the first nationally known conservatives floated the same idea.
Santorum's departure leaves conservative evangelicals with little choice but to support former Massachusetts Gov. Romney who is all but certain to win the GOP nomination in August.
"Keep in mind that some evangelicals will vote for President Obama, for any number of reasons," Mark DeMoss, a noted evangelical who has advised Romney for years, told CP. "Even if Gov. Romney was not some evangelicals' first choice, he certainly wants to be their next choice."
"Gov. Romney wants and needs all the help he can get and I think you'll see a lot of linking of arms with conservative leaders in the days ahead," DeMoss added.
Romney's two remaining opponents, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Texas Congressman Ron Paul have failed to mount a credible campaign thus far and it is unclear what their intentions will be in the coming weeks.