- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 25, 2012

Fresh off a big win in Saturday’s Louisiana primary, Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum on Sunday hammered front-runner Mitt Romney by painting him as “the worst candidate” the party could put up against President Obama.

“We want someone who can win, someone who can go up against Obama and draw a clear contrast,” the former senator from Pennsylvania said during an appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

“You’ve got someone here who can relate to the voters,” Mr. Santorum said.

With all the precincts counted, Mr. Santorum garnered 49 percent of the vote among Louisiana Republicans to 26.7 percent for Mr. Romney. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia was at 15.9 percent, and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas had 6.1 percent.

The victory is not expected to dramatically shake up the chase toward the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination, but it could give Mr. Santorum some cover from the growing chorus of Republicans who say it is time for the party to coalesce around Mr. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor.

More high-profile Republicans, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said Sunday that it’s becoming increasingly clear that Mr. Romney will be the party’s nominee. Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, said on “Fox News Sunday” that the GOP would benefit from uniting behind Mr. Romney sooner rather than later.

Those calls have had little effect on Mr. Santorum. He is mounting another stand in Wisconsin, which votes on April 3, along with the District of Columbia and Maryland.

With its substantial delegate lead and fundraising edge, the Romney campaign, already running ads in Wisconsin, has begun to paint Mr. Santorum as a desperate man who is unwilling or unable to see that the end has arrived.

Rick Santorum is like a football team celebrating a field goal when they are losing by seven touchdowns with less than a minute left in the game,” said Romney spokesman Ryan Williams.

The Santorum team, however, likes its chances if given a one-on-one matchup.

“This race has clearly gotten down to two candidates that can win the nomination,” Mr. Santorum said while campaigning in Wisconsin over the weekend. “I’d love to have a one-on-one debate.”

That desire for a Santorum versus Romney battle could boost calls for Mr. Gingrich to step aside. The outcome in Louisiana is sure to renew questions about Mr. Gingrich’s argument for staying in the race, which at this point essentially has devolved into an effort to block Mr. Romney from collecting the magic number of 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination outright before the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., late this summer.

Mr. Gingrich won the South Carolina primary in January. Since then, his campaign’s only true bright spot was his expected victory earlier this month in Georgia, which he represented in Congress for 20 years. Despite his string of poor performances, the former speaker appears to have no intention of exiting the race before the convention.

“This is clearly still an open race,” he said Saturday. “So, on behalf of the more than 176,000 Americans who have donated to Newt 2012, I will carry our solution-oriented campaign to Tampa.”

While the Louisiana win was a coup for Mr. Santorum from a momentum standpoint, it does little to close the delegate gap. Only 20 delegates were up for grabs in the election, and 26 are scheduled to be doled out at a later date.

With Saturday’s results, Mr. Romney now has 568 delegates — 295 delegates more than Mr. Santorum’s 273. Mr. Gingrich has 135, and Mr. Paul has 50, according to estimates by the Associated Press.

Mr. Santorum, however, called those figures “bad math” on Sunday, and said he strongly disagrees with the estimated delegate totals that are being widely reported.

He also is calling attention once again to what is often viewed as Mr. Romney’s biggest weakness — his support of a government health care system in Massachusetts, a program that the administration used as a model for Mr. Obama’s health care law.

Mitt Romney is the godfather of our health care plan,” David Plouffe, Obama senior adviser, said during Sunday’s “Meet the Press” talk show.