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Did a focus on social issues bring down Santorum?

Rick Santorum bowed out of the Republican nomination contest Tuesday.

Rick Santorum bowed out of the Republican nomination contest Tuesday. And Wednesday morning, the Morning Joe gang seemed to agree that it was the former Pennsylvania senator’s penchant for veering off message that ultimately derailed his challenge to Mitt Romney.

You know the examples: calling President Obama a “snob” for wanting everyone to go to college; saying JFK’s commitment to the separation of church and state “makes you want to throw up;” declaring that the unemployment rate “doesn’t matter to me.”

Santorum’s problem, as the panel saw it, was his inability to stick to an economic message that addressed the issue that was at the forefront of most voters’ minds. Instead, he jumped at any chance to talk about his views on social issues – and often got into trouble by doing so.

“Had he continued the economic message, had he been more disciplined and stayed away from some of the issues that even within the Republican nominating contest were a distraction, I think he could have posed a much bigger challenge to Mitt Romney,” said TIME’s Mark Halperin.

Joe Scarborough agreed. “He didn’t know, and his organization didn’t know, how to shape the message better,” Scarborough said. “That’s a mistake he won’t make twice.”

Santorum’s social conservative bona fides were never in doubt, Scarborough argued. “Everybody knew that Rick Santorum was pro-life,” he said. “Everybody knew where he stood on social issues. The disciplined candidate would sort of nod and wink to the James Dobsons and say, when I’m there, you’re there. But we’re just going to keep it low, I’m going to talk about my granddad, I’m going to talk about economic populism.”

“Had he done that,” Scarborough continued, “he could have broke through that ceiling and expanded that base.”

It’s certainly true that Santorum’s economic populist message appeared to resonate with voters, especially with the rest of the GOP field often reluctant to talk about the everyday struggles facing working Americans. But whether his platform – which included tax cuts for the top 1 percent and lowering taxes on capital gains – would have done much for them is a different question.

But it wasn’t just the subjects he dwelled on that hurt Santorum, msnbc contributor Mike Barnicle pointed out. It was also his tone.

“He brought to each day … a level of anger to his remarks that you know, was not helpful,” said Barnicle.

Still, the gang seemed to agree that if Santorum makes another bid for the presidency, he’ll have learned these lessons. And it’s worth keeping in mind: In eight years’ time, Santorum will be four years younger than Mitt Romney is now. Sounds like we haven’t seen the last of him.