What's next for Rick Santorum?

Surrounded by members of his family, Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum announces he will be suspending his campaign during a press conference at the Gettysburg Hotel on April 10, 2012 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Santorum's three-year-old daughter, Bella, became ill over the Easter holiday and poll numbers showed he was losing to Mitt Romney in his home state of Pennsylvania. Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Rick Santorum
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

(CBS News) Rick Santorum may have lost his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, but his stronger-than-expected campaign has established the former senator as a new leading voice for the conservative wing of the Republican party -- giving him influence he could wield in this election cycle and beyond.

"We are not done fighting," Santorum said Tuesday when he announced the suspension of his campaign. "We are going to continue to fight... for those Americans who stood up and gave us the air under our wings."

Santorum declared "game on" after his surprise finish in the Iowa caucuses. And while it now may be game over for his campaign, Santorum said it was a "long way from over" when it comes to defeating President Obama in November. For some social conservatives, they're hoping that means Santorum will serve as a bridge between their movement and Mitt Romney, the all-but-certain GOP nominee.

"I think a lot of conservatives would welcome having one articulate voice speaking to the Romney campaign for us," conservative activist Richard Viguerie told Hotsheet, adding that Santorum is the "only person that could fill that role right now."

The Santorum camp told CBS News that Romney has asked for Santorum's endorsement and that they will talk later about what Santorum can do to help Romney's campaign and rally conservatives.

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Bill Schneider a public policy professor at George Mason University and a resident scholar at the centrist think tank Third Way, told Hotsheet that Santorum's campaign may have failed, but it's left him with more influence.

"Among rank-and-file conservatives, I'd say he is the most influential leader," he said. "It isn't McCain, and not even George W. Bush -- it is Rick Santorum."

Given that influence, Schneider said he would expect Romney to call some sort of summit with Santorum, much in the way the 1988 Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis had a summit meeting with Jesse Jackson.

Richardson Dilworth, a professor and director of the Center for Public Policy at Drexel University in Philadelphia, said that Santorum's influence with Romney may be limited if Romney doesn't perceive a looming threat like a third party challenger.

Without that threat, he said, "there's no necessary reason for the Romney campaign to court [social conservatives], since they won't have anything to do other than vote for Romney."

Indeed, even Santorum's biggest financial backer, retired investor Foster Friess, told Politico today, "I'm obviously going to be of help in whatever way I can" to help.

Even if Santorum's influence with Romney is limited, he's unlikely to do anything to damage Romney's chances against Mr. Obama, Schneider said. Instead, he may just look to the next race.

In his remarks after losing the Wisconsin primary, Santorum suggested he could make another run for the presidency when he compared himself to Ronald Reagan in 1976 (Watch at left).

"Everybody told [Reagan] to get out of the race" in 1976, Santorum said. "They said, 'Get out of the race, we need a moderate'... He took that race the entire way to the convention. He fell short, and in the fall, Republicans fell short because we nominated another moderate who couldn't galvanize our party... Then four years later they fought him again, we need another moderate... This time the Republican establishment lost."

Schneider said Santorum is no Ronald Reagan, but he may perceive himself as one.

"There are some reasons to believe he might [run again] because the conservative base is enthusiastic about him, and Republicans often nominate someone who ran before," he said.

Dilworth said Santorum may consider himself similar to Reagan but may be more comparable to William Jennings Bryan, the 1896 populist who dragged the Democratic party down to minority status with his extreme ideology. Santorum could do the same to the GOP with his strong social conservative views, Dilworth said.

Or like Bryan, Dilworth speculated, Santorum may eventually end up in a cabinet position.

"If he stays active politically, as someone who's prominent and respected in that area, I think he gains greater legitimacy over time," he said.

(Watch Santorum's full remarks today at left)

CBS News producer Bonney Kapp contributed to this report.

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