In a Republican nomination contest full of “second looks,” former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum may be heading toward a “first look” in the finale of the Iowa caucuses.
If you watched any of the Republican debates, you saw Santorum, a 53-year-old Catholic father of seven. He was the guy standing at the end of the candidate lineup complaining about not getting enough questions. Newt Gingrich clawed back into contention by scorching debate moderators for their bias and stupidity; Santorum stayed in the second tier while scolding moderators for not paying more attention to him.
It wasn’t the best forensic tack, but Santorum’s frustration was understandable. It had to irk him to watch the ill-informed novice Herman Cain soar to the top of the polls on the basis of his booming personality and unworkable 9-9-9 tax plan, then get showered with donations when past allegations of sexual harassment surfaced. If a fraction of that windfall had gone to Santorum simply for being a principled conservative and exemplary family man, he’d have more resources to compete in the intense Iowa ad wars.
Santorum is the great paradox of the Republican field: At a time when primary voters say they are desperate for a candidate of conviction and consistency, Santorum is both on a range of issues, yet he hasn’t had a proverbial moment. Too earnest and too conventional, he lacks the personal pizzazz that has temporarily boosted the Republican shooting stars. He’s worked to make up for it with an admirably tireless 99-county grass-roots campaign in Iowa that has taken voters and the issues seriously.
Santorum’s calling card is his social conservatism, and he’s competing for Iowa’s evangelical voters with Texas governor Rick Perry and Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann. Santorum is more knowledgeable than Perry and more careful than Bachmann, and he has demonstrated more swing-state appeal than both by winning two statewide races in heavily Democratic Pennsylvania. His 18-point reelection shellacking in 2006 is his albatross, although Ronald Reagan himself might have lost in Pennsylvania in that GOP annus horribilis.
It didn’t help that Santorum’s outspokenness on social issues — especially those related to homosexuality — made him a figure of hatred and vulgar mockery on the left. But he’s not a thoughtless culture warrior, in it for the bombast. Santorum links his social conservatism to the struggles of the working class in one of the few thematic departures in a Republican primary that has been more about personalities and past heterodoxies than substantive differences.
In the debates, Santorum has constantly talked about increasing economic mobility. In a heresy for a Republican, he’s acknowledged that some countries in Europe are more mobile than we are, and he has noted the disparity between the unemployment rates of college-educated and non-college-educated Americans. Santorum proposes zeroing out the corporate tax rate for manufacturers to provide them a boost as a source of blue-collar jobs. “We need to talk about people at the bottom of the income scale being able to get necessary skills and rise so they can support themselves and a family,” Santorum said at the CNBC economy debate. He’s right, although he is one of the few Republicans who seem determined to have the conversation.
He’s always clear that the breakdown of the family is an inescapable factor in limiting economic aspiration. He cites the widely divergent poverty rates of two-parent and single-parent families. “You can’t have limited government,” he says, “if the family breaks down.” He speaks powerfully of how, when he was growing up in a very modest home, a mother and father were “the most important gift I was given.” He wants to triple the personal deduction for each child, making his tax-reform proposal the most pro-family of any on offer from the GOP candidates.
Santorum has seen a slight bump in the Iowa polls. He is still grinding it out on the ground and hoping it translates into a last-minute surge. Republican voters could do worse, and so far this year, at times already have.