” Of the above, I would have been supportive of Santorum, but all of them would have been weaker candidates than Romney.”
Depends what kind of campaign you want to see waged. A true conservative candidate would at least argue ideas. Romney, McCain & Dole ran as managers of the social-welfare state.
So did Bush #2, but people are now defining RINOs as candidates who lost and non-RINOs as candidates who won - if Bush had lost in 2000 he'd be included in the lists of "RINO candidates who lost."
And of course Reagan wasn't nearly the "true conservative" that people nostalgically idealize him to be, and in practice Nixon was the biggest RINO to ever walk the face of the earth.
Again, I like the things that Santorum said, but he would not have made a strong candidate at the national level. Romney was the best we had in the field and he lost. It is what it is.
And, BTW, you are right about managing the welfare state. But that is true of anyone (Republican or Democrat) who is elected these days. Real cuts to the welfare state would mean massive unrest and riots — anyone who is POTUS would have to contend with that. But the Liberal “solution” is to dramatically expand the Welfare state. That plays well to existing (and would be) clients and women. Logically, however, its an obvious formula for long term disaster.
The last President who could have reigned in the Welfare state was Bush II after 9/11—and he punted.