Tampa, Fla. — If the polls are correct, Rick Santorum will not win tonight’s primary. But he tells National Review Online that he remains in the hunt for the nomination. “This is a game of survivor,” he says. “I’m under the strong belief that we are going to hang in there. You are going to see some more ebbs and flows in this campaign. We are going to get our opportunity.”
Santorum sees hope to the west, from the Upper Midwest to the Rocky Mountain region. Leaving behind Florida’s air wars, where television advertising ruled, he is confident that he can impress. On Saturday, Nevada will hold its caucuses, and his campaign is hustling, organizing volunteers. It’s a similar scene in Minnesota and Colorado, which will hold caucuses next week.
Looking ahead, Santorum took care to campaign in Minnesota and Missouri on Monday. In Luverne, Minn., he held an event at a Pizza Ranch restaurant, signaling his commitment to retail politics. Pizza Ranch, a Midwestern chain, featured prominently in his Iowa strategy, where he frequently held town-hall meetings in popular eateries. Those events were integral to his victory.
“We’re engaged in Colorado and Nevada, and we’ve got folks working in Minnesota,” Santorum says. “Missouri, just south of Iowa, is holding a nonbinding primary, and we’ll spend a little time there. It’s a beauty contest, sure, but we think we can do well.” Gingrich failed to make the ballot there and Santorum says he is eager to illustrate how he can compete directly with Romney.
In states such as Colorado, especially, with its strong evangelical presence, the former Pennsylvania senator will reprise his Iowa model. Same goes for Nevada. In Minnesota and Maine, Santorum is focused on Internet organizing, mulling a bigger field staff, and planning visits. As his advisers see it, Santorum may not win every race against his better-financed rivals, but he’ll likely pick up delegates and momentum. Moving toward March, and its big-state primaries, that’s necessary.
Mike Biundo, Santorum’s campaign manager, tells me they’ve played in the Sunshine State to sustain the campaign as a national contender, but have not wasted resources here. “There are about 40 states left, and we’re going to play in all of them,” he says. “You have to expand the game.” As others spar in Florida, the campaign has bolstered its operations elsewhere. “We’ve done a lot beyond Florida,” he says. “We’ve gone from running for governor of Iowa to a national campaign.”
Indeed, as the primary season continues to unfold, and Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich claw each other, Santorum anticipates that conservatives will once again begin to eye other options. He is adamant that his mix of blue-collar populism and conservative values has enduring resonance.
“To win a general election against this president, we are going to need to win the kind of Reagan Democrats that gave Ronald Reagan a 49-state majority,” Santorum says. “We may not win 49 states but if we can galvanize those voters, we’re going to win a lot of states. President Obama knows that the states with those voters are his Achilles heel. That’s where the unemployment is; that’s where the dissatisfaction is. If we don’t talk to them as Republicans, we’re missing a golden opportunity. I can talk to them. Gingrich and Romney will have a hard time relating.”
Santorum reiterated that message on Sunday night in a telephone town hall, taking a short break from tending to the medical needs of his daughter, Bella, who was hospitalized with pneumonia. He emphasized his potential to win the support of Rust Belt voters. “I’ll make Michigan competitive and maybe win Michigan,” he said, predicting how he would fare in a general election bout with Obama. “I’ll certainly win Indiana and I’ll win Pennsylvania.”
Should Gingrich stumble following a disappointing Florida finish, Santorum advisers are positioning their candidate as an appealing, battle-tested Romney alternative. And Santorum, for his part, swats down chatter about an evolving two-man primary between Gingrich and Romney. He says the race is fluid, and that pundits have written him off before, only to watch him rise.
“It was a Pawlenty–Romney race, then Bachmann–Romney, then Perry–Romney, then Cain–Romney, and then a Gingrich–Romney race,” Santorum says. “It’s just silly. How many times is the media going to be wrong about this being a two-man race? Whoever is in the race is in the race. Maybe you guys are just simple and you can’t deal with more than two things at once.”
Santorum adds that he may not share the financial heft of Gingrich and Romney, but after a string of weekend fundraisers in Virginia and Pennsylvania, he has enough to last “to Super Tuesday and beyond.” If he continues to strike a chord with conservatives, he may even catch up to Gingrich’s numbers. “Look at Gingrich and the millions of dollars he was in debt; we’re not,” Santorum says. “We’re in cash-flow-positive situation. We’ll be able to fight the good fight.”
Santorum’s survival will be boosted by Foster Friess, a wealthy investor who is ladling cash on an independent, pro-Santorum super PAC. According to the Wall Street Journal, Friess remained mostly on the sidelines for much of this month, but he told the paper that after the dust settles in Florida, he will pay for television ads in western states Santorum has targeted.
But it’s the chance to focus on politicking in the suburbs of Denver and Minneapolis that keeps Santorum optimistic. He is pleased with his debate performances but yearns to showcase his “emotional” connection with working-class conservatives in upcoming primaries. “That’s the challenge for me,” he says. “I see this as part teacher, part storyteller, part leader. You try to connect with an audience, bring them in, and tell them not just what you believe but why.”
Santorum remains a longshot, of course, a quixotic conservative with few dollars to spend. “But remember, I’ve got the energy, the passion, and the positions to take on Obama forcefully,” he says. “That will make the difference in this election. The others struggle to make that case.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.