Politics & Policy

The Pennsylvanian

A reflection on Rick Santorum’s quixotic, historic bid.

Yardley, Pa. — Growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, I never dreamed of a Pennsylvanian as president. James Buchanan, the only man from the Keystone State ever to ascend to the presidency, was a dismal bachelor executive who left office in March 1861. Since then, the state has produced other White House aspirants, such as Democratic governor Milton Shapp in 1976 and Republican senator Arlen Specter in 1996, but they were stumblers and their bids quickly forgotten.

Rick Santorum was a C-list Fox News pundit and damaged-goods former senator when he announced his improbable candidacy last year, and many politicos expected him to join the ranks of Shapp and Specter. It was going to be a vanity run for an ambitious Italian-American kid from Butler, Pa., who wanted one last turn in the national spotlight. After this final bout in the arena, he’d fully retreat into the K Street coterie of influence peddling and punditry, as so many ex-lawmakers do.

#ad#Iowa changed everything. Santorum, surprising even his closest aides, began to campaign like it was 1990, when he was an unknown upstart gunning for a congressional seat near Pittsburgh. He took off his suit jacket and put on a sweater-vest. For what seemed like the first time in years, he began to smile. In the mid-2000s, we’d all come to view Santorum as a grim culture warrior, but the snarl faded as he traveled around the Hawkeye State in a battered Dodge pickup.

For much of last year, he lived in his own world and loved it. He couldn’t afford any big-name consultants, so he stuck with John Brabender, his longtime strategist. He tapped Mike Biundo, an amiable New Hampshire operative, to manage his campaign. He recruited former Iowa GOP official Chuck Laudner to be his driver and adviser. Nobody expected him to surge, and his presence at the debates was considered a nuisance, if noted at all.

I’ll always remember standing next to him and his wife, Karen, after a debate in Ames last August, a few days before the state GOP’s straw poll. A crowd of reporters, producers, talking heads, and bloggers milled about. As Santorum waited impatiently to go on Fox, long after the other top candidates had appeared, no one approached him for long stretches. Minutes would go by, and reporters simply had nothing to ask him. They hovered awkwardly. He was running for president, sure, but he wasn’t the story. He was the sidebar.

What we didn’t realize was that Santorum on television is a very different political creature from Santorum on the stump. During those early debates and cable hits, for reasons known only to him, he dusted off his puffy senatorial sensibility. He bombarded the moderators with facts about his committee prowess, about his mid-1990s legislating, and . . . yawn. It got him nowhere. On the economy, he was outdone by Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich was better at nostalgia.

Only when I began to follow Laudner’s truck with my rental car did I begin to sense that something special was happening. The Santorum who could be strained and fidgety on Hannity became a warm conservative favorite when he stopped by Boone’s Pizza Ranch or held long, winding town-hall meetings in Des Moines. Everyone had forgotten that this man, who lost to lackluster Democrat Bob Casey by 18 points in 2006, was actually an expert retail pol.

Iowa’s evangelicals ignored conventional Beltway wisdom and embraced this mid-fifties former senator with a growing family, deep Roman Catholic faith, and no entourage. Unlike Romney, who is constantly surrounded by a phalanx of men in dark suits, Santorum was the dorky dad who maybe talks a little too much at the church picnic. You admire him for his lack of pretension.

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Coupled with a blue-collar economic platform that pledged to eliminate the corporate tax on manufacturers, Santorum’s upbeat retail politicking slowly brought him into contention, and he gained momentum as Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, and Jon Huntsman fizzled. “He’s almost like a sleeping giant,” Santorum staffer Lori Jungling told me a few days before Iowa’s caucuses. Particularly in conservative western Iowa, he drew large, enthusiastic crowds.

On a cold January night, as thousands of Iowa Republicans held caucuses in parish basements and living rooms, Santorum was optimistic. Even then he did not expect to win. He huddled with his tight-knit team at the Stoney Creek Inn in Johnston, reviewing the returns from their “war room,” an upstairs conference center dressed up to look like a hunting lodge.

#ad#Near midnight it became clear that Santorum and Romney had effectively tied. Quite suddenly, the impossible dream was real. “Everybody lost it a little bit when they heard the news,” Biundo told me that night. “But they were good tears.” Santorum gathered his ecstatic kids and strolled to the podium. He was cheered as if he were a Midwestern folk hero.

Watching from afar, Biundo and Brabender were thrilled and slightly apprehensive. After persisting for months on nothing more than Iowa prayers and scant media attention, their small-ball campaign was now a national contender. Almost immediately, things got complicated. Santorum, as we learned much later, actually beat Romney in Iowa. But due to a counting error by the state party, he didn’t get the credit for the upset when he needed the bump.

So on to New Hampshire they went, this merry crew, with a few more dollars but not all the buzz they deserved. In less than a week, Santorum’s Iowa high began to disappear. He had spent so much time in Waterloo and Sioux City, with minimal expectation of competing elsewhere, that his ground game in the Granite State was subpar. He underperformed and came in fifth place. It was a disaster. A week later in South Carolina, he came in a distant third.

By late January, Gingrich had claimed the anti-Romney crown. His South Carolina win had boosted his coffers and his ego. He headed with confidence into Florida, the crown jewel of the late-January calendar. Santorum was still in the race and drawing support, but GOP leaders and many in the press were writing him off as an Iowa also-ran, this year’s Mike Huckabee. He was an insurgent and an evangelical champion, but not a true national player.

In late January, that wasn’t the worst place to be. Gingrich’s potent anti-Bain, anti-establishment campaign terrified Romney’s advisers. In response, they launched negative ads at the former speaker, hoping to break him in Florida before he became a true threat. Ten days after winning the Palmetto State, a bruised and furious Gingrich lost Florida by double digits. The Georgian had burnt much of his cash in the state, looking for back-to-back wins, only to be stomped.

Santorum had survived. He hadn’t won a thing since his messy Iowa success, but he had outlasted Gingrich, who flailed and fell out of the picture post-Florida. Brabender and Biundo took a look at the map and saw an opportunity. As Romney looked ahead to Super Tuesday in early March, he was not making a serious play for the early-February caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota. The former Massachusetts governor also wasn’t competing in Missouri, which would hold a nonbinding presidential primary vote on the same day.

Santorum’s strategy was simple: Go back to what worked before. He started once again to make stops at Pizza Ranch restaurants; he sent Laudner, his Iowa adviser, to run his Minnesota campaign; and he generally loosened up. On February 7, he won all three races, sending a jolt through the primary. Romney’s big Florida victory turned out not to be the total knockout blow that many politicos had predicted. It had destroyed Gingrich but given Santorum new life.

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A month after Iowa — which might as well be a decade in presidential politics — Santorum was back in the hunt. Rising once to a national primary’s top tier is a significant political feat. Doing it twice, after being counted out, is something that very few politicians ever achieve. The deeper into a primary season, the more rarefied the air. Santorum’s campaign, along with a pro-Santorum super PAC, collected millions in online donations. Television ads went up, as did his poll numbers, even in Romney’s home state of Michigan.

But for the most part, Santorum’s campaign remained the same operation. It hired a few new staffers but nothing close to the number in Romney’s camp. “We’re totally decentralized,” Brabender told me in late February. “It’s not the classic, 1960s-style campaign.” He was confident that Santorum’s Rust Belt appeal, not some sprawling national network, would put him over the top in Michigan’s late-February primary and in Ohio on Super Tuesday.

#ad#And that bet might have paid off if things had gone as planned. But Santorum was partially sidetracked in mid-February. For instance, when Foster Friess, the financier of a pro-Santorum super PAC, joked on MSNBC that “gals” should use aspirin as contraception, the media spent days on the matter. Santorum promptly distanced himself from Freiss’s comments, to no avail.

A few days before the Michigan and Arizona primaries in late February, Santorum grappled with another distraction, this one of his own making: He talked about, of all things, John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech to the Houston Ministerial Association. In the speech, the Bay State Democrat had underscored the separation of church and state; Santorum said that listening to Kennedy’s opinion on this matter had disgusted him so much that he wanted to vomit. He was making a larger point, but in the rush of a presidential campaign, it was political cacophony.

This winter period of the campaign echoed earlier moments in many respects. It was nothing new for Santorum to be preoccupied by side stories and tangle with the press. But it hadn’t been the norm. In Iowa and in early February, he had stuck to a few key themes — the Tea Party’s suspicion of Wall Street and K Street, economic populism, and family values — and delivered them neatly packaged. But the message soon came undone.

Even as he fought countless — often pointless — battles responding to political minutiae, Santorum continued to chalk up solid totals in Michigan. And he very nearly beat Romney in a state the former governor had to win. If Romney hadn’t dominated the Detroit suburbs, Santorum would have carried the state with ease.

What-ifs mean little, of course, and Santorum had lost a state he also needed to win. He had touted himself as the conservative soldier for the industrial Midwest; a win in the industrial Midwest, not a close loss to the son of an auto baron, would have given him a crucial lift. He went into Super Tuesday in March much like he came out of Iowa — with heat but not on fire.

Ohio, the neighbor to his home state, was where he needed fire. As with Michigan, he ran a strong campaign, picking up support from evangelicals, disgruntled Republicans, and working-class conservatives. He lost by about 10,000 votes. That same day, Santorum also won Oklahoma and Tennessee. But it was Ohio, where he held his election-night rally in the Catholic college town of Steubenville, that campaign-watchers will remember. If he’d pulled out a victory in Ohio, he could have truly knocked Romney from the top slot.

Romney barely managed to win Ohio. Nevertheless, it was enough. The headlines and magazines looked at his two narrow wins in Ohio and Michigan and proclaimed him the near-presumptive nominee, even though the delegate race was far from over. To me, at least, that night was the turning point of the campaign. I stood in the Steubenville high school gymnasium long into the night with Brabender and Biundo, who anxiously watched Fox News. The screen first showed Santorum up by a few points, then ultimately down by a hair. By midnight their smiles were tight, their faces dour.

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Since then, Santorum has had a few ups and downs but nothing that has put him as close to supplanting Romney as he was that night in Ohio. He won a trio of primaries in the Deep South: Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. He won Kansas but lost Illinois and Wisconsin, two critical Midwestern primaries. Altogether he has won eleven contests. But Romney has a huge delegate lead, regardless of how Santorum’s aides spin it. Romney has the money advantage. Romney has everything, it seems, that one needs to become the Republican nominee.

#ad#So as he celebrates the Easter holiday with his family and tends to the health of his daughter Bella, who was hospitalized on Friday, Santorum will have to make a decision about whether to stay in the race. He has done something amazing this campaign season, lasting longer in a presidential primary than any modern Pennsylvania politician has. With his startling success, he has already cemented his legacy as a GOP legend in the political history of his home state, the same state that tossed him out of office six years ago.

If that was enough, Santorum would bow out, content to have been the surprise of 2012. He’d lick his wounds and look ahead to a potential 2016 bid. It’s evident, though, that he desires more than lucrative speaking fees, a fat television contract, and newfound celebrity. As with many presidential candidates who last till spring, he is finding it hard to acknowledge his fall. He is slow to concede that Romney is picking up wide support, including among conservative leaders who want this brutal primary to end. Santorum is stubborn and hopeful.

On Thursday, at an office in northern Virginia, Santorum met with a group of conservative leaders who support him. They urged him to shake up his campaign in order to keep his chances afloat until May, when Indiana and Texas, among other states, will hold primaries. Santorum listened with interest, according to Richard Viguerie, one of the attendees. “We’ve got to reengineer the campaign,” Viguerie told me Thursday afternoon. “We’ve got to add things, take things out, and make changes. Everyone recognizes that, from the candidate on down.” There is a desire, he said, for Santorum to stay in and continue the fight against Romney.

But here, in the Philadelphia suburbs that will probably determine both the Pennsylvania primary and the fate of Santorum’s campaign, the appetite for a “Romney alternative” is small. Santorum’s journey to this point may have been epic, but his arrival home has been mostly quiet and disconcerting. His poll numbers are sinking, and his ragtag campaign is struggling mightily to compete with Romney’s machine. On the trail, Santorum isn’t generating much enthusiasm among the state’s many moderate Republicans. He has a base to the west, around Allegheny County, but not much else.

Six years ago, Pennsylvania broke his heart and nearly capsized his political career. Now the state might do it all over again. For a state that rarely sends politicians into the presidential fray, it’s a strange way of welcoming back a favorite son of sorts, the best national candidate it has produced in a century. To the chagrin of political junkies who live along the Delaware River, Santorum will probably not follow in Buchanan’s footsteps this year.

But if there is anything that Santorum’s anomalous experience has shown, from Iowa to the close calls in Ohio and Michigan, it’s that this attorney and grandson of Italian immigrants could easily return to prominence in the future. Regardless of what happens in two weeks, he has proven that he is no Shapp or Specter. He is a national politician from Pennsylvania who can actually win primaries — in more than ten states, no less.

That’s far from winning the nomination, but it’s something.

— 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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