In the end Rick Santorum went out as he came in: quietly, with dignity and a sense of mission. "Over and over again we were told, 'Forget it, you can't win.' We were winning, but in a different way. We were touching hearts; we were raising issues that frankly a lot of people didn't want to have raised," noted the former U.S. senator as he suspended his bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

In what has been deemed a "game-changing" campaign, Santorum did not shy away from the battle, both with progressive secularists and conservatives inside the GOP. As he slowly but with deliberate measure moved from the far corners of the debate stage (where he struggled at times) to center position, Santorum remained the same man. And that's ultimately what drew people to him: his authentic consistency. No matter how you felt about his views on gay marriage or his opposition to abortion or even his votes as a U.S. senator, as you watched Santorum walk away from this race, you could not help feeling a sense of pride in his accomplishment.

As Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, noted, "He got into the race with virtually no endorsements, very little money, and he was an asterisk in the polls, and he ends the race having won 11 states and over 3 million votes, which is the most since any insurgent conservative candidate since Reagan." Quite an accomplishment, particularly when you consider that Mitt Romney's super PAC allies spent more than $41 million in negative advertising against him and Newt Gingrich.

By the time the commercials were over, however, as Santorum himself would admit, there was no longer a clear path to the nomination. In order for the Santorum campaign to effectively prosecute and win a strategy that stopped Romney dead in his tracks, three things would have had to happen:

1. Newt Gingrich would have had to get out of the race. Beginning with Super Tuesday, the campaign could no longer tolerate the weight of Romney, Santorum and Gingrich at the top (not meaning to slight Ron Paul, but he hasn't yet won a primary). Something had to give, and by all reasonable calculations, especially in the Santorum campaign, that "something" was Gingrich.

An exit by Gingrich and subsequent support behind Santorum would have had two immediate effects: First, not only would it have coalesced conservative voters across the country behind the idea of Santorum's campaign, but it would also have affirmed its very viability. In short, the base of the GOP would finally have had its "anti-Romney" candidate. Second, it would have meant that โ€” if negotiated the right way โ€” Gingrich's delegates would move over to Santorum after the first ballot, and then anything could happen. Oh, wait โ€” that's what Gingrich is hoping Santorum will do with his delegates now.

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Romney walked away with the "winner" narrative on election night, and Santorum was left to look for big bucks elsewhere โ€” and there didn't appear to be anywhere else to look. Moreover, Santorum's difficulties were compounded by a lack of infrastructure and organization necessary to successfully challenge Romney's massive advantage on the ground and on the airwaves.

3. Texas would have had to change its primary rules. Last year Texas submitted its plan to award its 155 delegates on a proportional basis. The Santorum campaign, in an effort to boost its delegate count (assuming it won Texas), backed efforts by Texas supporters to petition the Republican National Committee for a waiver to change to allocating delegates on a winner-take-all basis. The RNC said no.

Despite the apparent difficulties of no organization, no money and no cooperation, Santorum proved himself a true competitor, finding ways to win and, more important, to define the narrative of a primary season that was supposed to have been over within the first six weeks.

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Which now raises one question: What happens next? Well, according to Rush Limbaugh, "It leaves us [Republicans] now where the establishment candidate is the nominee." Santorum raised the specter of that fate when he referred to Romney shortly before the Wisconsin primary as "the same old tired establishment person" whom Republican leaders are trying to "shove down our throat." In a sense, Limbaugh is right. The GOP establishment won the primary war, but even it doesn't appear happy about it.

After months of bemoaning the state of "the field" โ€” essentially avoiding the inevitable โ€” the roll call of establishment supporters for Romney began to appear, first as a trickle and then recently as a mini-wave, but always somewhat tepidly. In each instance, the endorsers sounded more interested in defeating President Obama than in actually endorsing Mitt Romney. From Florida Sen. Marco Rubio we got, "There are a lot of other people out there that some of us wish had run for president โ€” but they didn't. I think Mitt Romney would be a fine president, and he'd be way better than the guy who's there right now."

And from former New York Gov. George Pataki came this little ditty: "Now, Mitt is not a perfect candidate. He has a number of problems. It's hard for blue-collar families like mine to identify with him. It's hard for economic conservatives to identify with him. He needs to do more to reach out to the Latinos. But I think he has to focus on that and on defeating President Obama as opposed to winning the next primary in the next state, and it's time to do that."ย 

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Wow, sign me up.

And therein lies the rub for Mitt. The nomination is his, but he is still haunted by an "anybody but Romney" attitude that has essentially flatlined enthusiasm for him up to now. There's only one problem: There is nobody left but Romney.

Michael Steele is the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and served as lieutenant governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007. He is currently a political analyst for MSNBC.