Some key Santorum backers affirm they are in it for the long haul

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum addresses supporters in Hollidaysburg, Pa., Wednesday, April 4, 2012.
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
Rick Santorum
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

(CBS News) The Republican presidential nomination fell farther out of Rick Santorum's reach Tuesday night when Mitt Romney swept three primaries in Wisconsin, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

But in spite of the fact that Romney is outpacing Santorum in the collection of delegates, and that prominent conservatives like John McCain are telling him it's time to bow out, Santorum says he isn't going anywhere. And so far, he has some prominent supporters still along for the ride.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion rights group Susan B. Anthony List, told Hotsheet on Wednesday that her organization will "without question" back Santorum as long as he is in the race. Her organization endorsed Santorum in February.

"It was a very serious and considered decision, and it's for the life of the candidacy, without question," she said.

On Tuesday night, Foster Friess, a major financial backer for the super PAC supporting Santorum, sounded equally enthusiastic about the former senator's ongoing campaign. Friess' staff confirmed to Hotsheet that nothing has changed since then, in spite of Romney's three primary victories.

Santorum "really has dramatically shown what he can do in about six months time when Mitt Romney has been running for six years," Friess said Tuesday on the Fox Business Network.

The millionaire Wyoming businessman has contributed generously to the pro-Santorum super PAC the Red, White and Blue Fund. When asked Tuesday whether he was ready to stop financially backing Santorum's candidacy, Friess said "absolutely not."

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"I have a lot of faith -- not so much in Rick Santorum, I have faith in him -- but I have faith in our country, and that's what we're all about," he said. Santorum, he said, is the only candidate who has "painted a vision" of the nation's future.

While Friess and Dannenfelser remain enthusiastic, other Santorum supporters are less vocal at this point. A spokesman for James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, did not respond to requests for comment from CBS News, nor did a spokesman for Gary Bauer, president of American Values. Prominent bloggers like Michelle Malkin have had little to say about the recent primaries, though Malkin indicated her continued support for Santorum on Wednesday by linking on Twitter to a conservative column arguing "This Race Is Far From Over."

Santorum's candidacy has lasted longer than most probably expected to, given his level of resources, but some Republicans are saying now is the time for him to finally throw in the towel. On Wednesday's "CBS This Morning," 2008 GOP candidate John McCain said Santorum should "understand it is time for a graceful exit."

After Tuesday's primaries, Romney has 642 delegates, according to CBS News estimates, while Santorum has just 252. A candidate needs 1,144 to secure the GOP nomination outright. Since Santorum has essentially no chance of surpassing Romney in the delegate count at this point, his best hope is keep Romney from reaching 1,144 - which would lead to a brokered convention at the Republican National Convention in August.

Santorum maintained Wednesday that he can turn the race around by performing well in his home state of Pennsylvania on April 24, as well as in the May 29 Texas primary.

"The people of Pennsylvania know me," Santorum said from Carnegie, Penn. "All of the negative attacks I think are going to fall on a lot of deaf ears. We've got a strong base of support here and we're going to work very, very hard. Then we're going to get into May. May looks very, very good."

In addition to the Texas race, Santorum is looking for strong showings in May contests in West Virginia, Arkansas and Kentucky.

On Fox Business Network, Friess expressed skepticism about the delegate math that makes Romney's lead seemingly insurmountable, adding, "It's not over 'til it's over."

Acknowledging that a loss in Pennsylvania would be damaging, he said, "Remember the famous Bible verse, 'don't rush to meet that what you would most avoid.' So we'll wait 'til we get to Pennsylvania."

While Friess maintained that Santorum has a special "vision" for America, special interest groups like Susan B. Anthony List are particularly interested in keeping alive his focus on socially conservative values.

"It is really about him and his ability to appeal to the very voters we must have... to defeat Obama in the general based on the life issue," Dannenfelser said. "He certainly has appeal on other issues, but looking at the primaries, he brings out the pro-life vote."

Indeed -- exit polling in both Wisconsin and Maryland shows that primary voters who were primarily concerned about abortion overwhelmingly went to Santorum. That sort of mobilization can make a a difference in a down-ballot race in a swing state, where an anti-abortion rights candidate could win or lose to a pro-abortion rights candidate by a margin of one or two percentage points.

Dannenfelser said that Santorum's presence in the race has made all of the candidates sharper on the issues her organization cares about, resulting in "real solid commitments" to their policy positions.

FRC Action, the lobbying arm of the conservative Family Research Council, doesn't endorse candidates, but it has also commended Santorum for keeping social issues part of the discussion.

"I think he's helped make Mitt Romney continue to look at the issues that touch a very large part of society," Tom McClusky, senior vice president for FRC Action, told Hotsheet. "When it comes to conservative ideals versus those that President Obama stands for, the biggest contrasts are on the issues of family and life."

McClusky said a prolonged primary season shouldn't hurt the Republican party, as some have suggested. "It's democracy, he said. "It will hopefully strengthen the candidate."

If Romney is the eventual nominee, McClusky said organizations like his will do their part to motivate social conservatives, but the responsibility will rest with Romney to pick up where Santorum left off. "Without somebody talking their language, it's going to be up to the campaign to motivate them," he said of socially conservative voters.