Politics & Policy

Santorum: The Blue-collar Candidate

The former senator touts his working-class roots.

Johnston, Iowa — “Please! Move for the senator! Arms back! Get outta the way!”

Near midnight on Tuesday, in a cramped, first-floor hallway at the Stoney Creek Inn, it was a madhouse, a circus of flying elbows and Klieg lights. Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator — who for months could barely draw a local blogger to his events — was suddenly at the center of the American political scene, the near-winner of the Iowa caucuses. As he made his way toward the stage, Santorum was swarmed by scores of reporters and supporters. Slow step by slow step, his advisers, Secret Service–style, tried to shield him from the melee. Santorum, wide-eyed, shook hands and smiled, and said the same refrain to each bystander: “Thank you.”

#ad#Santorum’s wife, Karen, and six of their seven children trailed him, saying few words on the long stroll to the dais. Their expressions echoed their father’s shell-shocked exuberance. About five years ago, Santorum lost his Senate reelection bid by 18 points, and as the election-night cameras rolled, most of the children cried as their father conceded. Now, marching together, they were composed, to be sure, but still emotional. “Everybody lost it a little bit when they heard the news,” says Mike Biundo, Santorum’s campaign manager. “But they were good tears.”

Once at the podium, Santorum quoted Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, and thanked his family; he applauded his political team and reflected on his Iowa travels. Then he turned to the next battlefield, New Hampshire, which will hold its primary on Tuesday. As he has done on the trail all winter, Santorum highlighted his populist message, with its emphasis on reviving U.S. manufacturing. That blue-collar appeal, he said, will be his campaign’s unabashed message as it looks to challenge Mitt Romney, the frontrunner in most national polls. In contrast to Romney, a son of Michigan privilege and Harvard grad, Santorum hopes to be the working-class hero.

“The message I shared with you tonight is not an Iowa message or an Iowa-and-South Carolina message,” Santorum said. “It’s a message that will resonate across this land.” Indeed, in conversations with National Review Online, Santorum’s senior advisers hint that gritty, middle-class rhetoric could be a recipe for success in New Hampshire, where recession-plagued factory towns dot the state’s ten counties. Romney, the Santorum aides argue, has spent millions making the Granite State his “firewall,” but their guy, with his Rust Belt roots, could easily surge. New Hampshire may have a “moderate” reputation, Biundo says, but it has a history of choosing populist conservatives, such as Pat Buchanan in the 1996 Republican primary.

Biundo, a longtime New Hampshire political operative, was a member of Buchanan’s campaign team that year, and hopes to apply lessons learned from that race. “He’s not pundit-driven, he’s not consultant-driven, he’s real,” Biundo says of Santorum, and with his history of winning tough races in Pennsylvania’s “coal towns and steel towns,” the potential is palpable. Already, over 23 state legislators in New Hampshire have endorsed him and “my phone keeps lighting up,” Biundo says, with a slew of experienced political hands ready to assist.

“There are a lot of pockets of opportunity,” Biundo says. He cites Rockingham County, in the state’s southeast corner, Carroll County in the central slice of the state, and the city of Manchester as areas that “could be really good for us.” Same goes for Nashua and the “North Country, where the paper mills have closed.” Santorum “understands what is needed to win in those areas,” he says. “With everyone else just glib and glamour, and talking in sound bites, he is going to do well. Not everyone will agree with him, but they’ll believe him.”

“We’re not like these other campaigns that look at New Hampshire, surrender, and say ‘We can’t be competitive there; we’re going to the South.’ We think South Carolina is extremely important, and we’re the only ones who’ve won a straw poll there. But we think that to be a legitimate presidential candidate, you have to, at the very least, be willing to compete in each region of the country,” says John Brabender, Santorum’s senior strategist. “And that includes the Northeast. We’re not expecting to walk into every place and feel like we have to win, but going to New Hampshire lets us continue a dialogue with the country. That’s where the press is, that’s where people are paying attention, and we want to show we have national strength.”

#page#For Santorum, the campaign’s focus on visceral, populist imagery and middle-class-friendly policies is good politics, but it’s also personal, so selling it to voters is hardly a chore. On caucus night, he reveled in his biography, and framed his speech around the story of his grandfather, who came to the United States from Italy in 1925. “He came by himself, even though he was married with two children, one of them being my father,” Santorum recalled. “He came after having fought in World War I, because Mussolini had been in power now three years, and he had figured out that fascism was something that would crush his spirit and his freedom.

“So he made a sacrifice,” Santorum continued. “He went to the coal fields of southwestern Pennsylvania. He worked in the mine at a company town, got paid with coupons, he used to call them, lived in a shack . . . And after five years, he got his citizenship and brought my father over at the age of seven. He ended up continuing to work in those mines until he was 72 years old, digging coal. I’ll never forget the first time I saw someone who had died. It was my grandfather. And I knelt next to his coffin. And all I could do — eye-level — was look at his hands. They were enormous hands. And all I could think was, those hands dug freedom for me.”

#ad#That anecdote, told movingly, was well-received at the Stoney Creek Inn, and on television sets around the country, where Santorum’s speech won rave reviews on blogs and Internet message-boards. And as he sets up shop in New Hampshire, Santorum will likely repeat that story in Concord and Londonderry. As his aides see it, Santorum can eventually catch up to Romney on the money front, and is poised on the ground to repeat his Iowa ground game, thanks to social-networking tools and grassroots enthusiasm. Beyond those logistics, they see the message as the one part of Santorum’s candidacy that Romney cannot match, the last part of their puzzle.

Of course, Santorum’s message will be difficult to promote as the clock ticks and the national press, and many conservatives, delve into his voting record, not his childhood memories. And though the ex-lawmaker may have buzz, his poll numbers in New Hampshire linger in the single digits. A Suffolk University tracking poll released on Monday shows him at 3 percent, and in fifth place overall among the GOP field. That figure will see an uptick when Santorum’s Iowa bounce figures into the surveys, but Biundo, Brabender, and others take care to say that the campaign will take nothing for granted. The key for Santorum, they say, is thinking broadly about themes, as well as organization, as Tuesday’s vote approaches. He may be a former Beltway powerbroker, a Senate leader, but this winter, it’s his grandfather’s hands that matter.

Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.

Robert Costa — Robert Costa is National Review's Washington editor and a CNBC political analyst. He manages NR's Capitol Hill bureau and covers the White House, Congress, and national campaigns. ...

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