Rick Santorum takes his coffee black and ignores the pastry spread. He’s here, at Bistro Bis, a French restaurant on Capitol Hill, not just to mingle with reporters, but to send a message. Later today, he’ll speak on the steps of the Supreme Court, which will soon hear arguments about President Obama’s health-care law, and he wants to remind the press that he, not Mitt Romney, is best positioned to carry the anti-Obamacare torch.
But that pitch, from the outset, is muffled by the latest Beltway buzz. Santorum, after winning the Louisiana primary over the weekend, became immersed in a war of words with the New York Times, whose political reporter, Jeff Zeleny, challenged the former senator about his remarks.
“You said Mitt Romney is the worst Republican in the country,” Zeleny told Santorum after a Sunday speech in Wisconsin. “Stop lying,” Santorum replied, who asserted that he was talking about Romney in a specific context — arguing that he’d be the worst Republican to challenge Obamacare. “Quit distorting my words,” Santorum continued, who then cursed in front of the cameras.
The exchange has since dominated cable news. Before he arrived to breakfast, Santorum defended his comments at Fox News across the street. “I apologize for being late,” he chuckles. “I’ve had some of the most fun over the last few days, yelling at the Times reporter.” As he says this, his top advisers, sitting nearby, offer grim smiles. He’s not here to banter. “I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have said that,” he says, to no one in particular. “It’s just that the third time someone asks you that question, you just sort of say, I’ve had it with this.”
As the waiter pours fresh-squeezed orange juice in Santorum’s glass, I remind him that he’s had a testy relationship with the media for decades, going all the way back to his first House run in 1990, when he ran as a conservative upstart in a moderate district. He acknowledges that the Zeleny spat is nothing new or surprising. “If you’re a conservative, you tangle with the press,” he says.
“That’s sort of the way it is,” Santorum says. “I think Bill McGurn said it right the other day in the Wall Street Journal — some members of the press simply cannot understand what I’m saying, they’re just incapable of understanding because their world is, in some respects, very different. I’m not saying every member, but some members of the press. It’s a little frustrating that they hear things not as they’re said, but [from] their own sort of perspective. That’s always a struggle.”
Beyond the kerfuffle over his use of an expletive, Santorum sticks by his point. He firmly believes that Romney, due to his promotion of health-care mandates in Massachusetts, remains a damaged contender. And, he says, in spite of reporters and GOP grandees declaring the primary race to be over, he is more than willing — no, energized — to make this argument at the convention. “It hurts him, but frankly, it’ll hurt him more as this goes on,” he says. “People realize how big of an issue it is.”
“It is the mega-issue, it is the biggest issue,” Santorum says. “And it’s one, as you’ve seen, which President Obama won’t talk about. He’s not going around defending this thing. It’s his huge Achilles heel. And I make the argument that we’re putting up the one guy who can’t make the case.” He pauses and sighs, then scowls, insisting that the Republican establishment has ignored the idea.
“We have a lot of voices out there saying, ‘it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter’,” Santorum says glumly. “They’re telling folks to think differently than what their gut tells them to think. All of the endorsements, all of the pundits, all of the conservative media, many of whom have lined up behind him. They keep saying, ‘Oh, no, he’s fine. He’s the right guy, he’s got the organization, he’s got the money — we’ve got to win, we’ve got to win.’”
Santorum rolls his eyes. He worries that party leaders have coalesced behind Romney because he has more money, not because he has a better, or more conservative, agenda. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” he says. “It’s Wizard of Oz time.” He sees the wave of GOP bigwigs moving toward Romney, but he doesn’t like it. “Republicans, generally speaking, in almost every single election, take whose turn it is,” he says. “Governor Romney has been working this for four years — I give him a lot of credit. He’s worked the establishment.”
“I haven’t,” Santorum says, his palm hitting the table with each word. “I don’t call these guys up on the Hill. I don’t call governors. I’m just out there. I’m trying to get state senators and House members, who will actually work on the grassroots, who will help me, as opposed to someone who is just going to put their name out there.”
He doesn’t quarrel with the notion that endorsements have boosted Romney; he questions the way the process works. After more than a year of climbing uphill, “I understand how hard it is, as a conservative, to be an insurgent in the Republican party,” Santorum says. “If you look at the fact that we’ve now won eleven states, it’s pretty remarkable.” But as he laments, Santorum takes care to underscore his commitment to fight on. He looks at general-election map, he says, and sees many favorable contests for a Rust Belt conservative.
“The swing states — that’s my sweet spot,” Santorum says. “That’s where I can attract the voters that we need to win.” Romney, he predicts, may improve GOP numbers in the Northeast, but he’ll still likely lose those states to Obama. “He’ll lose by less,” Santorum surmises. Santorum sees his own strength in Virginia and Ohio, even though he lost those primaries. “I’m not going to be outspent [in a general election],” he says. He is confident that his pro-manufacturing, blue-collar economic plan, and his focus on freedom, could click.
“A short campaign is the best for us,” Santorum says, looking ahead to a potential compressed campaign following a contested convention. “If we only have a two-month campaign, [the Obama campaign’s] money advantage, and it’ll be an advantage, won’t make much difference because there is only so much money you can spend in two months to have really any impact. There are diminishing returns after awhile. But if we have a nominee next week, all of the money advantages they have, now, are going to be trained on destroying the nominee.”
A couple of the reporters at the table, including yours truly, raise their eyebrows. Santorum’s scenario is possible, but its plausibility isn’t entirely apparent. A two-month campaign following the convention could certainly occur, but many assume it would hurt, not help, the GOP. Santorum senses the skepticism, but he doesn’t back off. “I think we can come close to winning everything in May,” he says, and, should he pick up primary wins in Texas, North Carolina, and Indiana, he has every reason to stay in until Tampa.
In the meantime, “I think we should win Pennsylvania,” Santorum says, reflecting on his home state, which will hold its primary in late April. “I’m not sure we can win Wisconsin,” which will hold its contest in early April, since he is being outspent. “We might be able to pull it off,” he says. But the bigger picture, to him, is the delegate math. While he is proud of his Bayou State victory, and of his other come-from-behind wins, he is most cheerful about his ability to pick up delegates, even in states where Romney’s political machine has outgunned him.
“We have just as good a chance of getting [to 1,144 delegates] as he does,” Santorum says. He is already working with top supporters such as Kim Lehman, a member of the Republican National Committee, to build coalitions among unbound delegates, such as the RNC’s 117 “super delegates.” Leaning back, he says, he would relish the opportunity to spar at the convention with Romney, working with conservatives at the eleventh hour to patch together a ticket.
“It is the best thing that could happen — to make this election a two-month election,” Santorum says, smiling. “The best way to win this election is to actually give people a clear choice on two different alternatives on the most important issues of the day. I talk about this in every speech — the two biggest bread-and-butter issues in America right now are number one, Obamacare,” and number two, “energy costs — gas prices, gas prices, gas prices.”
As his staffers pull him away to meet with donors, Santorum tells us that this is not some pipe dream — he is winning primaries and gaining momentum. He is campaigning, he says, to help the conservative cause, not hurt the GOP. “Look, if it becomes very clear that even under our math that Governor Romney is going to get there, that he is going to have the delegates, then sure,” he’d consider dropping out — but not yet. “[Romney’s campaign] has nothing really substantive, unfortunately, to offer Republican voters, so they offer them process,” he says. Unless that changes, he thinks he can win.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.