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Santorum ‘Unplugged’
The candidate speaks from the heart. Is that an asset or a liability?

Rick Santorum in Columbus, Ohio, February 18, 2012

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Robert Costa

Hour by hour, Rick Santorum is getting dinged by the press and his primary opponents. The fervor over his surge, however, is more about what he says and how he says it — not whether he is qualified or whether he’s conservative. The intense scrutiny raises the question of whether Santorum can survive the long haul — whether he can remain steady under the Klieg lights.

These questions are not new.

In December 2005, five Republican consultants participated in a panel discussion in Washington, D.C. The forum, moderated by Chuck Todd and sponsored by the University of Virginia, focused on the “future of the Republican party.” Stage left, hunched behind a water bottle, sat John Brabender. At the time, Brabender was an influential adviser to an influential senator, Rick Santorum, who was preparing for a tough reelection bid against Democrat Bob Casey.

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Early on, Brabender reflected on the upcoming campaign, telling the sleepy college crowd that he was not worried about conservative turnout. What kept him up at night, he said, was the steady “erosion” of independents and moderates from Republican ranks. In the vote-rich suburbs, Brabender foresaw problems. “You talk about a gender gap, it’s huge,” he said.

Eleven months later, that “gender gap” became a chasm. On his way to an 18-point defeat, Santorum lost women by 22 percentage points. He lost the Philadelphia suburbs by 20 percentage points. With his preachy speeches, his strident morality, and his caustic media persona, Santorum did more than sour middle-class moderates — he alienated them.

“He’s sincere, he’s aggressive, but he has some limitations,” says former Pennsylvania congressman Phil English, a Romney supporter who managed Santorum’s first House race. “I’ve always admired him for his energy level. He can articulate complicated issues and in a town-hall setting he’s very formidable. He can be a liberal activist’s worst nightmare.

“And he wasn’t always like that,” English says. “He has reinvented himself over the years as a speaker, honing his skills at countless town-hall meetings. He’s gotten much better, he’s authentic. But he’s also divisive. He still has a propensity to blurt out things.”

This year, the fear among Republican strategists is that the Santorum of 2006 — and not the Santorum who swept Pennsylvania in 1994 and 2000 — is the candidate on the 2012 trail. He is widely considered to be a powerful force but a highly unpredictable and potentially disastrous campaigner. Sure, he has risen to the top of the polls and he could win the nomination. But to many Republican hands, it’s an open question whether he could improve his appeal to independents and women. There is a gnawing sense that the lessons of his 2006 defeat have not been internalized but bypassed — that he has largely ignored them while running to the right of Mitt Romney. Santorum appears to have mellowed during his six years in the wilderness, but there are frequent flashes of the temper of old, of the fiery culture warrior.



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