Inside Santorum World

by Robert Costa

Earlier today, I spoke with John Brabender, Santorum’s senior strategist. He reflected on tonight’s primaries and looked ahead to the “Super Tuesday” contests. Here are parts of our conversation:

Calling Democrats was strategic. “Nobody registers by party in Michigan,” Brabender says. “So we had to figure who was going to show up and vote. That’s why it’s funny Romney is criticizing us for calling Democrats. We’re just calling people who consider themselves, most of the time, to be Democrats — because they vote in Democratic regions — but who also vote in Republican races.”

The establishment’s brokered convention dreams are a fantasy. Brabender has little patience for the grumbling within the GOP establishment about drafting a new candidate should Santorum continue to rise. “Conservatives and tea-party supporters recognize that the establishment is always going to try to find a candidate who they prefer,” he says. “Generally, their candidates are ones who are middle of the road, who have a minimal message, and very vanilla-like. It sounds like they’re quickly souring on Romney, that they do not think he’s up to the task. So they’re trying to find another establishment-like candidate. I think it simply scares a lot of people in the establishment that if we have a nominee like Rick Santorum, it’d be a nominee they could not control. He won’t just fall in line with their agenda. He’ll reform things.”

The Romney-Paul conspiracy concerns remain. “I think the world should be worried about a Romney-Paul alliance,” Brabender says. “There are more and more stories coming out every day about how curious this is, about all of the connections. They’re using the same ads in Michigan and Paul, who isn’t even competing in Michigan, is running negative ads against Santorum, which could only benefit Mitt Romney. There are enough people out there who are curious about what the relationship is, what has been promised to Ron Paul, and those types of things. Romney has a lot of explaining to do.”

Expect more of the snob theme. As I report on the home page, Santorum isn’t walking back his “snob” comment about the president. In fact, Brabender says, “Super Tuesday” voters can expect to hear a continuation of that theme. But he acknowledges that his candidate does not always pick a perfect phrase, and that Santorum will probably not overuse that line. “When everything you say is not poll tested, not from a TelePrompTer, there will be times when you probably don’t pick the best words,” he says. Still, “the message should not be lost in the process,” he says. “What we’re willing to do is have a candidate who comes across as genuine, who is willing to speak his mind. There’s an authenticity to that.”

Santorum will remain accessible. Santorum is picking up momentum and Secret Service protection, but will his freewheeling engagement with voters and reporters continue? “It will,” Brabender claims, and he notes that this aspect of the campaign contrasts with Romney, who holds few press availabilities. “We’re not going only take the questions that we think are the plump ones,” he chuckles. “We’ll take the hard ones, too. When you answer the hard questions, it’s difficult. But you can gain people’s respect. For a long time, that’s been Santorum’s appeal — his honesty, his passion, and his ability to talk directly and not mince words. It’d be a major mistake for us to try and change that.”

There’s little worry about the ‘insider’ narrative. Brabender does not expect Romney’s focus on Santorum’s Senate record to damage the campaign. He views it as one of many attack angles on Santorum that have come and gone. “A month ago, our supposed bump was that he lost his last election. Before that, the bump was that he was too conservative,” he says. “Every week it’s something else, something that they say he can’t overcome. The problem is that this is the pundits talking to each other; it’s the insiders and the establishment. Middle America isn’t talking about this stuff.”

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