Rick Santorum’s strong second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses is no surprise to the people who first saw him run for Congress in 1990. To them, he’s always been a comeback kid.
“Rick Santorum has carved a political career out of being underestimated,” says Jon Delano, the money and politics editor for KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh. Delano first encountered Santorum in 1990, when the upstart Republican challenged Delano’s boss, Rep. Doug Walgren, for his congressional seat.
“In 1990, the Republican party did not support him,” Delano remembers. “The hierarchy, they didn’t give him any money. They didn’t think he had a shot against an incumbent Democrat who had been there for 14 years. And he did something similar to what he did in Iowa: He camped out in the district and went door to door. And through sweat equity and a little money, he developed a cadre of very ardent, very conservative supporters who one-on-one convinced the voters that it was time for a change.”
Although Walgren outspent Santorum $717,000 to $251,000, Santorum won with 51 percent of the vote. “It was a narrow election,” Delano remembers. “Five votes per election district would have changed the election.” Santorum pulled off another upset in 1994, when he beat Sen. Harris Wofford by two percentage points, 49 to 47 percent.
The secret to his success, Delano insists, is work ethic. “Without a doubt, Rick Santorum is one of the hardest-working candidates I’ve experienced in my 16 years of covering political candidates,” Delano says. “He never gives up. He can be prickly. But he’s convinced of his positions. It’s very refreshing to have a politician who is transparent. And Rick Santorum is transparent. He says what he believes. There are no surprises.”
Pennsylvania state senator Jake Corman, whose parents advised Santorum at the beginning of his political career, agrees. “I think his honesty was always well respected,” Corman says, illustrating his point with an anecdote. “When he was running for the Senate, he met a woman who started talking about health care and laid out essentially the same health-care ideas that Hillary Clinton had proposed. He looked her right in the eye and said, ‘I couldn’t disagree with you more,’ and then laid out his position. But he was very respectful. I was always taken by that.”
Indeed, Corman emphasizes that Santorum isn’t “shy about taking on the tough issues.” And that, according to those who know him well, may be his most endearing quality.