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Texas primary loses influence with Rick Santorum's exit

Texas could have been a kingmaker.

If the stars had aligned at the right place and the right time, Texas and its 155 Republican delegates could have made a big impact in the presidential race.

But now that Rick Santorum is out, the Lone Star State and its May 29 primary may be relegated to a mere footnote in the story about the 2012 presidential election.

Santorum withdrew as it became clear that he would be unable to defeat GOP front-runner Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor. The announcement also came after Santorum's daughter Bella was released from the hospital. Bella, 3, was born with Trisomy 18, a chromosomal disorder that makes her susceptible to illnesses like pneumonia.

"He would have won overwhelmingly in Texas," said Brandon Rottinghaus, associate political science professor at the University of Houston. "Now Texas at the presidential level won't be a major factor, just a way for Mitt Romney to collect more delegates."

The remaining GOP presidential challengers say that's not the case.

U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Lake Jackson, who is holding a town-hall meeting in Fort Worth tonight, said Santorum ran a "spirited" campaign.

"Dr. Paul is now the last -- and real -- conservative alternative to Mitt Romney," Paul campaign chairman Jesse Benton said in a statement. "We plan to continue running hard, secure delegates and press the fight for limited, constitutional government."

Newt Gingrich, who landed Gov. Rick Perry's endorsement, praised Santorum's bid and asked his supporters to join his campaign.

"We know well that only a conservative can protect life, defend the Constitution, restore jobs and growth, and return to a balanced budget," he said, posting on Twitter that this "is now a 2 person race."

Santorum had gained great momentum in Texas, drawing thousands to rallies and raising money for his campaign. In February, he told a North Texas crowd that this state would move him closer to claiming the White House.

"We're going to have a big win in Texas when the day comes," Santorum told supporters in Plano. "Texas is the conservative epicenter of this country. You folks lead the way. You really do."

A poll last month showed that Santorum would have bested Romney in Texas, 45 to 43 percent, in a one-on-one matchup. But with a field of four candidates, Romney claimed the lead in Texas, according to a March Rasmussen poll that surveyed 750 likely Republican voters.

Now, Santorum's exit from the race "make[s] the Texas presidential primary moot," said Allan Saxe, associate professor of government at the University of Texas in Arlington. "It is set: Gov. Mitt Romney vs. President Obama for the heavyweight championship."

Santorum supporters said Wednesday that they are disappointed the man they hoped would be president is out of the race.

Craig James, who is running for the U.S. Senate and endorsed Santorum, said it's now time for Republicans to join together.

"His success in so many states proves that the conservative message of limited government and defending personal freedom still resonates with Americans," James said. "Now it is time for the Republican Party to unite and focus all of our attention on defeating Barack Obama this November."

Mark Davis, a conservative radio talk show host who participated in Santorum events in North Texas, posted on Twitter: "Prayer and family was the basis for getting in, now the reason for exit. It was a better campaign and it's a better America w/Santorum."

Texas Republicans say this state could have had its presidential primary in March if Democrats hadn't filed lawsuits over new voting maps, tying up the election process in court.

"This would have been a moot point if we had our vote made on March 6, as the Legislature intended," said Chris Elam, a spokesman for the Texas Republican Party.

This article includes material from Tribune wire service.

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley