Politics & Policy

Santorum the Debater

His razor-sharp rejoinders and fearless attacks have won him a disproportionate influence.

Before the start of the CNN/Tea Party Express debate two weeks ago, each candidate was branded with a nickname. Mitt Romney was dubbed “the early frontrunner,” Rick Perry “the newcomer,” Newt Gingrich “the big thinker,” and Michele Bachmann “the firebrand.”

Rick Santorum was “the fighter,” or the candidate “known for throwing hard punches from the right.”

It’s a nickname he’s earned.

In the most recent debate (September 22), Santorum tore into Perry over immigration. “Why should they be given preferential treatment as — as an illegal in this country?” he demanded after Perry had said that he supported in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants. He called Perry “soft” on illegal immigration and brought up that Perry had indicated he was open to considering “binational health insurance between Mexico and Texas” in a 2001 speech. “I don’t even think Barack Obama would be for binational health insurance,” Santorum snarked. (The latter was a rather cheap shot; as NR’s Kevin D. Williamson explained, “binational health insurance” would simply have meant reducing regulations to allow, among other things, Texans to be reimbursed by their insurance providers for medical work done by Mexican practitioners and vice versa.)

Perry ineffectively tried to swat back, asking Santorum if he had been to the border (Santorum: “Yes.”), and then gave a rambling answer that caused Santorum to ask Perry, “Can you answer the question?” Fox News moderator Chris Wallace intervened then: “Sometimes we’re frustrated with all of you answering questions.”

Santorum may rank seventh in the race according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls, but his razor-sharp rejoinders and fearless attacks have won him a disproportionate influence at the debates. In fact, his immigration attack on Perry was practically pre-planned: According to Newsweek, Fox deliberately decided to swing a question Santorum’s way immediately after asking Perry about immigration. “That’s going to get some fireworks going,” Bill Sammon, a Fox News managing editor, said of the arrangement.

But Santorum denies that his focus going into the debates is to rip into his rivals — even as he jabs New Mexico governor Gary Johnson.

“I think debates are about showing who you are. It’s not about scoring points. It’s not about coming with one-liners about shovel-ready projects. It’s about authenticity,” he says, referring to Johnson’s crowd-pleaser line in the last debate that “my next-door neighbor’s two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this current administration.”

Santorum, who participated on his high school’s debate team for one year, may be getting more questions than some of his rivals, but he isn’t satisfied with how the debates are moderated. Like Newt Gingrich (who has achieved his own debate fame by responding to questions with a scolding directed at the moderator), Santorum is no fan of the media’s approach to debates.

“I’ve had six debates now, and I haven’t had a chance to talk at all about health care,” Santorum complains. “Governor Romney obviously did have a comprehensive health-care bill, which was wrong, but there really isn’t anybody else in the race who has done more in the area of health care and put forth more ideas for private-sector health-care reforms than I have. The media, not having done their homework in my opinion, doesn’t say, ‘Hey, the best guy to really talk about Romneycare is the guy who is the market-based guy who actually proposed these things when he was in the House and the Senate.’”

“It’s hard to have a full-blown discussion of health care,” Santorum adds, “after answering one question and trying to sneak in something at the end of the question that you might have some time on.”

While it’s Perry who has more recently been the recipient of Santorum’s stinging responses, Santorum denies targeting any one particular candidate. “Give me the opportunity to go out there and talk about Mitt Romney’s health-care program, and I’ll spend an hour going back and forth with Governor Romney. I’ve been tough on Governor Perry because the opportunities have come. There are plenty of differences between Governor Romney and myself, between Congresswoman Bachmann and myself, between even Speaker Gingrich and myself,” he says, adding that there are also “big differences” between him and Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman.

Santorum prepares for the debates by conducting town-hall meetings and doing some extra studying on current events the day of the debate.  “I think the reason we’ve done well,” he reflects, “is that I go out and do in front of the cameras and 5,000 people what I do every day in Oskaloosa [Iowa] and Anamosa [Iowa] and Spartanburg [S.C.] and Jackson [S.C.]. That’s what I do. That’s what’s attracting people to our campaign.”

What he doesn’t necessarily get before debates: a good night’s sleep. Santorum was running on fumes during the last debate, thanks to an overnight drive from South Carolina to Florida that placed the candidate in his final destination at 3:30 a.m. “I was completely exhausted. Last night I will tell you I was beat. People said I did well last night. I hardly remember,” he says, recalling the experience as “just nuts.”

Right before a debate begins, Santorum always makes sure to say a prayer. His notes are written on a pad inscribed with the initials “H.S.” (Holy Spirit).

Santorum remains optimistic that ultimately, his debate skills will lead to a surge in his poll numbers, that his “genuineness” and “core conviction” will appeal to the audiences watching him exchange verbal spars with the other GOP candidates.”What I’m saying out there is what I believe,” he says. “It’s in my heart. It’s in my head. Got the fire in the belly.”

“That message,” he predicts, “will come across.”

— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.

Katrina TrinkoKatrina Trinko is a political reporter for National Review. Trinko is also a member of USA TODAY’S Board of Contributors, and her work has been published in various media outlets ...

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