Rick Santorums exit from the Republican presidential race recasts the upcoming North Carolina primary a week before early voting begins, with possible implications for the controversial marriage amendment.
Tar Heel voters were poised to play a role in the prolonged GOP contest, with underdog candidates like Santorum and Newt Gingrich hoping to find support to disrupt Mitt Romneys quest for the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination.
Now the chances are slim that candidates will travel the state talking to voters and flood local airwaves with commercials in a full-blown campaign. But the election picture remains unfocused because of Gingrich. Campaigning in New Bern on Tuesday, the former U.S. House speaker pledged to continue his fight.
A day earlier, Gingrich told reporters in Raleigh, there is no reason to concede anything. If there is a major mistake or a major flaw, the race is wide open again.
Michael Bitzer, a political expert at Catawba College in Salisbury, said North Carolina voters can still make a statement when early voting for the May 8 primary begins on April 19. Santorum and Gingrich as well as Ron Paul will appear on the ballot and may draw a protest vote.
The question is how bad Romney limps into the Tampa convention with the base of the Republican Party still not behind him, Bitzer said.
At the state level, Santorums departure may also influence voter turnout in other campaigns. The former Pennsylvania senators social conservative voters would have boosted support for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages and civil unions. Likewise, other far-right conservative candidates could have drawn more votes.
Without a driving factor of a presidential race at the top of the ticket, will (social conservatives) have a motivation to come out? Bitzer asked.