Editor's note: Stephen M. Krason is professor of political science and legal studies at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. He is president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists and author of the forthcoming book, "The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic" (Transaction Publishers).
(CNN) -- Aside from winning his home state of Georgia and the bordering state of South Carolina, Newt Gingrich has had a lackluster performance in the Republican race. It is about time for Gingrich to step out of the race and endorse Rick Santorum.
On Super Tuesday, Gingrich was fourth behind Ron Paul, who almost everyone acknowledges has no chance to win the nomination, in no fewer than four states.
He finished respectably in Oklahoma (27%) and Tennessee (23%), but still badly trailed Santorum -- and even Mitt Romney -- in these conservative states where he would have had the best chance to garner support. Since then, Santorum swept the Kansas caucuses. Gingrich is now making a strong effort in two other Deep South states, Alabama and Mississippi, and his staffers are intimating that if he does not do well there he will leave the race.
It may be dawning on Gingrich that his chance of winning the GOP nomination is quickly receding and that he needs to think more about the conservative cause and what's best for the Republican Party.
Gingrich and Santorum have been competing for many of the same voters. Had Gingrich not been in the race, Santorum would probably have won more contests, including the biggest prize of Ohio, as well as the Michigan primary. It seems fairly certain that without Gingrich, Santorum would now be the clear front-runner and some people would be calling for Romney to depart the race.
Santorum has positioned himself not only as the conservative alternative to Romney but the only candidate who can still snatch the nomination from him.
Although Romney has been touted for some time as the likely nominee and received many endorsements, he simply has not caught on with a sizable part of the party's base.
From the beginning of the campaign season, this has been the case. He won a narrow victory in Ohio and in his home state of Michigan because of moderate Republican voters in urban and suburban areas.
Some Republicans believe that Romney is the strongest candidate to run against President Barack Obama because he is most capable of broadening the party's electoral base in the fall. However, Romney can't even broaden his own base within the party.
When November comes, it's not so clear that he can win the same urban and suburban voters who have reliably voted Democratic in the past. And if at the same time he fails to gain enough support among the rest of the Republican base, then he certainly won't be able to generate the turnout he needs to win.
Moreover, his weakness with the Republican base has been reinforced by questions about his character, including his tendency to give off the impression of Brahmin aloofness, spend lavishly and use negative campaigning. The Republican establishment has encouraged the semi-marginalization of a substantial part of the party's base this year by insistently claiming that only a "moderate" can win -- by which it seems to mean someone with an unclear message and unsettled convictions. This sounds like a recipe for defeat.
The establishment has not only disconnected itself from the preferences of many of its rank-and-file -- without whom the party surely cannot win -- but it has also shown itself to be oblivious to the historical record.
While it has not always been the case, Republican moderates often lose. Just think of Wendell Willkie, Thomas Dewey (twice), Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush (his re-election bid), Bob Dole and John McCain. Some of these men were much less philosophically murky than Romney.
Public Policy Polling has confirmed what most observers intuitively know: Gingrich's voters would mostly go to Santorum. If Gingrich were to bow out, it would finally permit the kind of one-on-one race -- conservative versus moderate -- that would make clear where the rank-and-file wants the Republican Party to go and where its true electoral strength this year lies. Let's see whether Republican voters really want a moderate of Romney's stripe to lead them.
Gingrich has performed his service by showing that clear, pointed and intellectually well-formulated challenges to the country's current political drift will draw attention and support. Unless he wins handsomely in the Deep South, it's time to let Santorum -- whose intellectual and rhetorical gifts are not far behind Gingrich's -- lead the charge by himself.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen M. Krason.