I T WAS DEFINITELY an E-ticket of a political roller-coaster ride, with thrills that ranged from revealing that college is actually for "snobs" to debating whether the Crusades were a good thing.

And when Rick Santorum finally pulled the inevitable kill switch in his former home state of Pennsylvania on Tuesday, it seemed clear that two men had a better chance of winning future presidential elections than when he started.

One of them is Santorum himself.

The second - unfortunately for GOP leaders - is President Obama.

And Mitt Romney looks like the odd man out.

It may have been Santorum who went to Gettysburg to drop out of the race, but it was Romney who came away from their political battle like a wounded Civil War veteran, bleeding independent and female voters like an open gash.

"A lot of Republicans are cheering because now he [Romney] can focus on Obama," said G. Terry Madonna, the political scientist and pollster from Franklin & Marshall College. But now it's Romney looking up from a deep hole that's been dug to the right of the current president.

It was fitting that Santorum - who bought a stately permanent home in northern Virginia and became a wealthy consultant and pundit after leaving the Senate - ended his 2012 quest for the White House here in the Keystone State.

It was in Pennsylvania in 2006 that voters put the kibosh on Santorum 1.0, when the two-term senator was trounced by 18 percentage points after becoming the face of social conservatism for outspoken comments on sex, religion and other topics.

And when it became clear in 2012 that Romney was about to unleash a "shock and awe" bombardment of millions of dollars in negative ads for what would have been an embarrassing second defeat in Pennsylvania, Santorum 2.0 was yanked off the market.

A tipping point may have been this weekend's latest medical setback for Santorum's 3-year-old daughter, Bella, who suffers from a chromosomal disorder called Trisomy 18. Bella's fight for life animated both the candidate and his supporters, but she has been hospitalized twice in recent weeks, taking Santorum off the campaign trail.

His daughter's illness and his looming Pennsylvania defeat made Santorum's Tuesday announcement feel like a political no-brainer, but it did something else.

It set the stage for Santorum 3.0.

"He wants to be the voice of conservatism," said Madonna, noting that Santorum has frequently invoked the 1976 campaign of Ronald Reagan, who lost the GOP nomination to Gerald Ford but won over the party's hard-core base and set the stage for his future presidency.

And while Santorum - who didn't endorse Romney on Tuesday - urged the defeat of Obama in the fall, few experts doubt that he'll run in 2016 if the incumbent wins.

Last night on MSNBC's "Hardball," Santorum spokesman Hogan Gidley admitted that the next presidential cycle has already been discussed. "I'm not going to say we haven't talked about it. Of course, you look and you say what are you going to do in the future . . . a lot of people said 'prepare for 2016,' " he said.

Madonna added one more thing for Santorum. "He'll became a wealthy celebrity - just like Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin did," referring to defeated candidates from 2008 who've hosted TV shows and have reaped large speaking fees since.

You could thus even make the strange argument that Santorum's long-term future looks brighter than the prospects for Romney, who, barring a literal lightning strike, will gain the Republican nomination this summer in Tampa.

Before Santorum climbed in his pickup truck and pulled off that narrow win in the Iowa caucuses, Romney was leading Obama in most polls. But with the political conversation hijacked by talk of issues like contraception - a longtime Santorum pet peeve - the former Massachusetts governor is now trailing in general-election polls.

Last night, Romney was also in Pennsylvania, speaking with Republican stalwarts in the exurban enclave of Chester County.

Those moderate voters of the Philadelphia suburbs are the ones whom the presumptive GOP nominee now needs to win back - after Rick Santorum showed up to complicate his life.

Contact Will Bunch at 215-854-2957 or bunchw@ phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Will_Bunch. Read his blog, Attytood.com.