Rick Santorum insists he still stands tall in the Republican race, but it seems like everyone is working - quietly and oh so delicately - to tug the rug from beneath his feet.

The media buzz is all about Obama-Romney, about the Romney machine's nascent focus on autumn swing states, about the pro-Romney tilt among the uncommitted big-shot delegates, about how Karl Rove's Super PAC is poised to ring in the general election season with a carpet-bombing anti-Obama ad blitz. Even conservative commentator Mike Huckabee, who repeatedly smacked down Romney during the '08 primaries, is now busy kissing up to Romney, hosting him today on a radio show. (Presumably, Huckabee won't repeat on air the scabrous stuff he wrote about Romney in his new book, especially the great line about how Romney "was anything but conservative until he changed all the light bulbs in his chandelier in time to run for president.")

Meanwhile, the Romney veep guessing game has already begun in earnest (my fave so far is Condoleezza Rice), and some prominent conservatives are saying that even though the decision to withdraw from a race is of course very, very personal, and even though nobody would ever dream of nudging Santorum so much as an inch...nevertheless, surely he's wise enough on his own to heed his friends. Hence, conservative Christian leader Richard Land, on CBS News yesterday: "As his friend, I would say to him 'you know, you ought to seriously consider leaving the race now.'"

But to really appreciate the subtlety with which the rug is getting tugged, check out the weekend story that surfaced in Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper. It's mostly attributed to anonymous sources - "a former Judiciary Committee GOP staffer," "a GOP strategist," and "critics of Santorum" - and it deals largely with an obscure 1998 episode in which then-Senator Santorum tacitly backed a Bill Clinton judicial nominee. It's a textbook case of how political snipers fire at an enemy from deep cover.

Basically, according to this report, Santorum allowed his Republican senatorial colleague, Arlen Specter, to call the shots on whether to support fellow Pennsylvanians who'd been nominated for the federal bench. Accordingly, the two senators acceded to President Clinton's nomination of Frederica Massiah-Jackson for a district court judgeship in Philadelphia. The only problem was, the cops and the city DA's office viewed her as soft on crime - thereby complicating her Senate confirmation prospects. Clinton withdrew her nomination prior to the Senate vote.

This long-dead episode is no big deal - senators often hew to protocol and help local nominees, and Santorum might've ultimately voted against her anyway - so why has it been resurrected now? Because, with 15 days left on the calendar before the Pennsylvania Republican primary, pro-Romney Republicans deep in the congressional woodwork are looking for any fresh ammo that might drive a wedge between Santorum and the conservative primary voters whom he needs in order to survive.

The anonymous "former Judiciary Committee GOP staffer" duly teed up a remark that echoes the rhetoric from the Romney message shop:

"While Santorum holds himself out during this campaign to be a tried and true conservative, his Senate record says differently...the Massiah-Jackson issue is another instance of that, and an egregious one. He practically outsourced all Pennsylvania judges to Arlen Specter" - which, given Specter's low standing among Pennsylvania conservatives, is akin to contending that Santorum consorted with the lefty enemy.

And the anonymous GOP strategist piled on by insisting that the Massiah-Jackson episode is a "weakness" in Santorum's conservative narrative, and proof that Santorum back in the day was "part of the 'Washington club.'"

But these shots across Santorum's bow are symptomatic of a much broader message, which goes something like this:

"Yo, Santorum. The party is sick and tired of all this infighting. If you keep wasting Romney's time and money, if you keep pulling him to the right, if you compel him to spend big money on Pennsylvania primary ads in April, and if you drag him down to Texas in May, in the end he's going to have a tougher time beating Obama. So stop being a brat. If you want to have any future in this party, if you want to nurture any realistic dreams about getting nominated in 2016 or beyond, and, in fact, if you want to avoid losing your home-state primary and not be humiliated by Pennsylvania voters for the second time in six years, then knock it off. Pull the plug already."

We can only guess which way he'll go. He's tied up with his ill daughter at the moment, and vowing to hit the trail again this week. Iif he opts to stay in, however, that anonymous hit job in Roll Call will be a mere puff of smoke compared to the heavy weaponry amassed against him.


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