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.
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.
At almost every appearance — even major policy addresses — Santorum speaks from a few note cards, if any. He’s an extemporaneous whiz, a talkative contender. This tendency — along with his penchant for long, wonky town-hall meetings — is cheered by his confidants, many of whom say it reflects the campaign’s accessible, open operation. Still, the lack of organization and preparation is disconcerting to numerous observers. And this past week, it has enabled Santorum’s detractors to drag him into distracting controversies. Be it Foster Friess’s contraception humor or the overcooked coverage about Santorum’s use of the word “theology,” the former Pennsylvania senator has not been able to float above the fray. Instead, he snaps back and he engages with nearly every peppered question. In these exchanges, be it with a progressive blogger or a network reporter, he can seem skittish and off-message.
“He’s a smart guy, he’s not a phony, and people have responded,” says G. Terry Madonna, a political analyst at Franklin & Marshall College who has known Santorum for three decades. “But he has had moments throughout his career where he can become unplugged. It is an innate part of his personality to be combative. When people believe strongly in things, they react viscerally. Over the years, his reactions have often been visceral.”
Santorum, for his part, defends his upbeat, hard-hitting presence on the trail. “This is how the media wants to frame me,” he told me late last week, sounding exasperated about the cable-news fixation on contraception. “We have to go out there and keep pounding away.” His gritty, off-the-cuff pitch, he said, may not warm critics but it’s crucial to his ascent. “It’s all about honesty,” he says. “It’s all about laying the problems before the American public.”
That won’t be easy. The Drudge Report, for example, ran Santorum’s past musings about Satan’s influence on the United States, not his economic plan, as its lead story on Tuesday. Countless other media outlets are placing a similar emphasis on past Santorum statements, not his policy proposals. The good news for Santorum backers is this: Brabender, who still helms Santorum’s team, is not an irrational disciple. He’s a political strategist, not an ideologue, and he openly acknowledges that independents and women are integral to victory. He wants to win. The question is whether Brabender can help Santorum repeat his past success — encouraging blue-collar social conservatives, the Reagan Democrats of yore, back into the GOP coalition.
As he travels with Santorum, Brabender tells me that he’s confident that the campaign can avoid the traps. And he brushes off any fretting by party grandees about Santorum’s unplugged style. In the heat of a primary, he says, voters want authenticity, even if it comes, at times, with a slight edge. “You go down the line of states between now and Super Tuesday, it’s a battle about whether you want someone who believes in the core Republican principles, someone who has lived up to those principles, or someone who just seems to talk about conservative principles. That’s a battle we’ll take,” he says.
“There is really something going on out there,” Brabender says, commenting on Santorum’s momentum. As he sees it, one pundit’s freewheeling candidate is another voter’s everyman. “There is a bigger story here that we want to make sure voters get. It’s not just about the issues, it’s about approach,” he says. “Tone and temperament do matter but they do not want to see Santorum sit there and be a punching bag.” Running a stiff, machine-like campaign, Brabender adds, hasn’t exactly helped Romney. In the coming days, he expects Santorum to stay loose. He is fully aware of the risks. But as the media spotlight heats up, he knows it’ll get rough. So for now, it’s improv.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.