Some conservatives criticize Santorum’s tax plan for favoring certain constituencies, calling it a pander to frustrated voters in Michigan and the broader industrial Rust Belt. “Cleaning up the tax code and broadening the tax code is not easy to tackle politically,” says Alex Brill, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute. “At the moment, it’s not just that the rates are too high, it’s that there are too many goodies in the existing system. Santorum’s plan doesn’t address that; it’s quite the opposite.”
But Santorum’s advisers say the former senator is committed to the sweeteners, and argue that, even if you disagree with his exemptions, you can’t forget that he’d collapse the tax code from six brackets to two. They also point out that tax incentives may not make supply-siders swoon, but they do reinforce Santorum’s passionate commitment to working men and women, especially as the race heads to Michigan and to Ohio on March 6. “It’s the paycheck-to-paycheck folks, they want to hear someone talk directly to them,” says Chuck Laudner, a Republican operative who managed Santorum’s victories in the Iowa and Minnesota caucuses.
“With Santorum, people realize that this is not about platitudes and talking points,” Laudner says. “This is about conviction, trust, and a little fight. He is going to continue to speak directly to the working class, the blue-collar people, and relate.” In Detroit, “he’ll come armed with solutions, with ideas about how to get things moving again.” The speech, he predicts, will be right in Santorum’s “wheelhouse,” with frank discussion about “how to make us competitive.”
In a background conversation, another Santorum campaign source observes that Thursday’s speech is important as the campaign drives its message in Michigan. But the source takes care to say that the speech will not be a “must-impress moment” akin to Romney’s recent address to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, in which the former Massachusetts governor attempted to assure skeptical conservatives of his credentials. “This will be a dive into the weeds on policy, not a ‘scared at CPAC’ sort of thing,” the source says. “We’re in a strong position.”
Most of that strength, in the polls and in the message, comes from the candidate, aides say. Former staffers corroborate that assessment. According to Seth Leibsohn, who served as an early policy adviser to Santorum, the senator has been focused on manufacturing since he jumped into the race. “Since he has been at one percent in the polls,” Leibsohn chuckles.
“We spent a long time discussing his economic agenda; we went back and forth for weeks, looking at a lot of different plans,” Leibsohn says. “But [Santorum] quickly settled on these ideas, the focus on manufacturing. I told him that the Wall Street Journal wouldn’t like it. He said that he knew they wouldn’t like it but he didn’t care.” Santorum wanted to connect with people affected by the economic downturn, Leibsohn adds, “to tell them that we won’t wash our hands of them. It was his top priority and he reiterated that to all of us on every conference call.”
Months later, now at the top of the polls, Santorum continues to make that case. It worked for him in the small towns near the Iowa cornfields, and in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado. His campaign is betting that, in a couple of weeks, it will lead to another Midwestern stunner.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.