Politics & Policy

Santorum: The Darkest Horse

He calls for a full-spectrum Reagan Coalition.

After Rick Santorum lost his Senate seat in 2006, he was, to many, a political dead man. Not only did he lose, but he lost big — by 18 points — to Democrat Bob Casey. Statistically, it was the worst loss for a sitting senator since Ronald Reagan’s first term. So, when Santorum travels to Iowa and New Hampshire these days as a possible 2012 presidential candidate, he’s a dark horse only Anna Sewell could love.

A recent Des Moines Register survey of Iowa Republicans about the 2012 field didn’t even consider a Santorum bid serious enough to poll. Instead, it looked at how the supposed frontrunners for the GOP nomination — Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, and Newt Gingrich, among others — would fare in corn country. Santorum’s absence from the Register’s slate, of course, is unsurprising: To most Washington insiders, the former Pennsylvania senator is out of office and out of contention.

Nonetheless, Santorum, 52, continues to visit early-primary states. “In my experience, I’ve found that it’s better to be under the radar,” he says, in an interview with National Review Online. “I don’t need to be popping up in any poll.”

Next week, Santorum will be back in Iowa for “private meetings” with the state’s GOP leadership and several events — mostly stump speeches for local Republicans — in Davenport, Des Moines, and Ainsworth, a little town just south of Iowa City. It’ll be his fourth visit to the Hawkeye State. “Senator Santorum has been our most frequent visitor,” Matt Strawn, the Iowa GOP chairman, tells Politico, noting that the senator “has been well received” so far.

In recent months, beyond Iowa jaunts, Santorum has done what he could to stoke buzz. Earlier in the year, he spoke at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference and at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. At CPAC, though, Santorum was not able to bask in the kind of attention given to conservative superstars. For him, it was mostly handshakes and snapshots with College Republicans in the hotel lobby — a far cry from the pomp of Gingrich’s fist-pumping, “Eye of the Tiger” entrance and Romney’s introduction by Sen. Scott Brown (R., Mass.).

Despite the lower profile, Santorum continues to plug along in the lower levels of the presidential horse race, mostly thanks to his gig as an on-air pundit for the Fox News Channel, as a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and as a guest host for Bill Bennett’s nationally syndicated radio show. Other side projects keep him in the conversation. At the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington think tank, he directs the Program to Protect America’s Freedom, which focuses on national-security threats, such as Iran’s nuclear program and what Santorum (among others) calls “Islamofascism.” America’s Foundation, his political-action committee, has also supported a variety of candidates — some winners (Scott Brown, Chris Christie, Bob McDonnell) and some losers (Doug Hoffman, Trey Grayson), plus Gresham Barrett, who is facing off against Nikki Haley in South Carolina’s GOP gubernatorial run-off next week.

Santorum, however, doesn’t play coy when I ask him about what his endorsement means to a fellow Republican, if anything. “Palin is the only endorsement anyone wants,” he laughs. “If you ask who the most influential endorsers are, Palin is numbers one, two, and three, with maybe Sen. Jim DeMint at four. Her endorsement is the only one that matters this year. Just look at what she did for Nikki Haley.”

What about Romney, the man Santorum supported in the 2008 presidential campaign? “No offense to Mitt, but he doesn’t carry the weight,” Santorum says. “Mitt can help you with some finance people, maybe in some small way, but his pull is insignificant compared to Palin’s.”

While Santorum says he “disagree[s] with Palin’s judgment” on some issues — like her endorsement of Rand Paul in Kentucky — he says he “by and large love[s] what she has to say. She’s a great rallying point for the party.” But he cautions that she still needs to be focused on “prudential judgment.”

Palin isn’t the only 2012-maybe for whom Santorum has kind words. Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who won the Iowa caucus in 2008, is “right on,” he says, for being a stickler on social issues and for criticizing another possible GOP contender, Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, for telling The Weekly Standard that the GOP needs a “truce” on intraparty debate on issues such as abortion and marriage in order to focus on fiscal matters.

While Santorum says that he understands Daniels’s argument, and agrees that “social issues are not the dominant issue” this cycle — “that the unemployment rate and the growth of government take that mantle, and rightfully so” — he believes there is “clearly a desire to have someone out there talking about [social] issues, as well as national security.”

“When I go out there and give these talks, no matter where I am, I talk about the moral issues,” Santorum says. “I believe that all of these issues are tied together. I don’t think you can separate them and say something is just a problem of economics or the size of government. I talk about it from the standpoint that our country’s foundation is based on this unique Judeo-Christian ethic that people have natural rights from a Creator and that those rights need to be respected by the government . . . that there’s a moral foundation for allowing people to work and reap the benefits of their labor. We need to understand that that continues to be an important element of why we believe what we believe. People appreciate that comprehensive look at the issues.”

As he looks ahead, Santorum says his pro-life, pro-family approach to politics still must have a place in the Republican party, and that he’ll fight for his positions to be included at the top levels of debate. “We should be out there talking about moral issues,” he says. “Just because one issue happens to be hot, doesn’t mean it’s the only issue. Voters are energized by moral issues — it is part of who we are. Social conservatives want to know that they’re electing folks who will, by and large, be with us on the issues. To leave social conservatives out to dry would only damage the party.”

“One of the reasons I want to be out there is because I want to make sure that we’re running as a Reagan coalition,” he says. “We can talk about small government, lower taxes, and national defense. All of those things are great. But we’ve got to talk about everything. Moral issues must be included. I’m not saying that we go out and lead with those issues, but they’re important, and we can share them in a way that’s compelling.”

Off the radar, and brushed aside by most pundits, Santorum says he will continue to travel to Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, and that he’s “excited” about helping out local candidates and state parties. Whether he can ride a coalition of social conservatives to an upset caucus win remains to be seen.

– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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