Yardley, Pa. — Growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, I never dreamed of a Pennsylvanian as president. James Buchanan, the only man from the Keystone State ever to ascend to the presidency, was a dismal bachelor executive who left office in March 1861. Since then, the state has produced other White House aspirants, such as Democratic governor Milton Shapp in 1976 and Republican senator Arlen Specter in 1996, but they were stumblers and their bids quickly forgotten.
Rick Santorum was a C-list Fox News pundit and damaged-goods former senator when he announced his improbable candidacy last year, and many politicos expected him to join the ranks of Shapp and Specter. It was going to be a vanity run for an ambitious Italian-American kid from Butler, Pa., who wanted one last turn in the national spotlight. After this final bout in the arena, he’d fully retreat into the K Street coterie of influence peddling and punditry, as so many ex-lawmakers do.
Iowa changed everything. Santorum, surprising even his closest aides, began to campaign like it was 1990, when he was an unknown upstart gunning for a congressional seat near Pittsburgh. He took off his suit jacket and put on a sweater-vest. For what seemed like the first time in years, he began to smile. In the mid-2000s, we’d all come to view Santorum as a grim culture warrior, but the snarl faded as he traveled around the Hawkeye State in a battered Dodge pickup.
For much of last year, he lived in his own world and loved it. He couldn’t afford any big-name consultants, so he stuck with John Brabender, his longtime strategist. He tapped Mike Biundo, an amiable New Hampshire operative, to manage his campaign. He recruited former Iowa GOP official Chuck Laudner to be his driver and adviser. Nobody expected him to surge, and his presence at the debates was considered a nuisance, if noted at all.
I’ll always remember standing next to him and his wife, Karen, after a debate in Ames last August, a few days before the state GOP’s straw poll. A crowd of reporters, producers, talking heads, and bloggers milled about. As Santorum waited impatiently to go on Fox, long after the other top candidates had appeared, no one approached him for long stretches. Minutes would go by, and reporters simply had nothing to ask him. They hovered awkwardly. He was running for president, sure, but he wasn’t the story. He was the sidebar.
What we didn’t realize was that Santorum on television is a very different political creature from Santorum on the stump. During those early debates and cable hits, for reasons known only to him, he dusted off his puffy senatorial sensibility. He bombarded the moderators with facts about his committee prowess, about his mid-1990s legislating, and . . . yawn. It got him nowhere. On the economy, he was outdone by Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich was better at nostalgia.
Only when I began to follow Laudner’s truck with my rental car did I begin to sense that something special was happening. The Santorum who could be strained and fidgety on Hannity became a warm conservative favorite when he stopped by Boone’s Pizza Ranch or held long, winding town-hall meetings in Des Moines. Everyone had forgotten that this man, who lost to lackluster Democrat Bob Casey by 18 points in 2006, was actually an expert retail pol.
Iowa’s evangelicals ignored conventional Beltway wisdom and embraced this mid-fifties former senator with a growing family, deep Roman Catholic faith, and no entourage. Unlike Romney, who is constantly surrounded by a phalanx of men in dark suits, Santorum was the dorky dad who maybe talks a little too much at the church picnic. You admire him for his lack of pretension.