Politics & Policy

Rick Santorum: The ‘Next in Line’ That Never Was

(Scott Olson/Getty)

Cedar Rapids, Iowa — Rick Santorum is rolling his eyes.

It’s the first week of December, and we’ve settled into the corner of an empty cafeteria in the bowels of the U.S. Cellular Arena here, where on an unseasonably warm Saturday the group FreedomWorks is sponsoring a forum featuring speeches from five presidential candidates. Santorum finished his and gaggled with a group of reporters — most of whom wanted to know, more or less, why he hasn’t yet quit the race — before joining National Review in the private setting. A nearby television flickered with images of the SEC championship game, and Santorum’s gaze continually drifted in its direction amid a few minutes of small talk.

That’s when I tell him I want to ask “an existential question.” Santorum, a youthful-looking 57, with a narrow face and plain features — a breathing facsimile of Woody from Toy Story — breaks slowly into a smirk and then, leaning back into the booth and lifting his eyes in the air meditatively, mutters, “I think, therefore I am.”

It is, in months of observing Santorum on the campaign trail, the closest he’s come to being genuinely funny. His run-ins with reporters are epitomized by his shaking his head in frustration at repeated queries about his anemic polling. His speeches are often devoid of any levity or self-deprecation; he spends as much time lecturing audiences about the dangers of choosing another candidate as he does offering the merits of voting for him. This day was no exception. At one point Santorum told the crowd of some 1,500 Iowans, “It’s important for conservatives not to settle for a fighter who loses,” a clear reference to Ted Cruz. He also warned them not to allow anger — at the parties, at the political system — to dictate their votes.

RELATED: Why Santorum Wants Another Shot at the Nomination

The irony is dense and inescapable, as Santorum’s campaign is seemingly defined by anger — at Mitt Romney for branding the GOP as a party for employers instead of employees; at himself for not capitalizing four years ago on the best chance he’ll ever have to be president; at the Republican National Committee for allowing national polls to determine 2016 debate criteria; at Cruz for selling himself as the campaign’s purest conservative; and at Iowans for buying it.

Which prompts me to ask, simply, if he is angry. “I’m out there fightin’,” Santorum says, leaning forward. “If you look at me and my political career, I’ve always been a scrapper. There’s a big fight out there, and I’m itching to get in it.”

He stops himself. “Is the fact that I haven’t been in the fight, with the debates, bothering me? Yeah, I guess I can say that, like four years ago when I was at the edge of the stage and nobody was asking me any questions. And now, being in the second-tier debates, it puts you in that same type of feisty mood.” He draws a deep breath and shrugs. “But I feel very much at peace. At least, I hope I don’t come across as someone who’s angry. I don’t feel angry at all.”

Santorum admits he was angry four years ago but says that this time around his fervor is being mistaken for fury.

Santorum admits he was angry four years ago but says that this time around his fervor is being mistaken for fury. The two are often indistinguishable; Santorum is passionate about his case but clearly upset that he can’t make it during a prime-time debate. It’s especially aggravating for someone who in 2012 won Iowa’s caucuses — and ten other states — en route to finishing runner-up to Romney for the nomination. In a GOP that often promotes its “next in line” — Ronald Reagan in 1980 after losing in 1976, George H. W. Bush in 1988 after losing in 1980, John McCain in 2008 after losing in 2000, Romney in 2012 after losing in 2008 — Santorum entered this cycle thinking he’d established himself as a brand in the party, especially so in Iowa, and was therefore well positioned to compete for the nomination.

Instead, on this December day, eight weeks from Iowa’s February 1 caucuses, Santorum finds himself averaging roughly 1 percent in polls here — and less than 1 percent nationally. This has kept him from qualifying for the main-debate stage, where he would stand alongside a group of candidates that he feels are underqualified, insufficiently conservative, or both. This begins to explain Santorum’s “feisty mood.”

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The mood was festive, not feisty, one night prior in Urbandale, a strip-mall suburb of Des Moines. There, at Santorum’s Iowa headquarters, his staffers and volunteers held a Christmas party with an atmosphere fit for a front-runner: Dozens of holiday-clad Iowans, many of them children, mingled and laughed over disposable plates of pizza as Santorum lit the office Christmas tree and invited the youngsters to visit with Saint Nicholas (a volunteer, cloaked in the heavy green suit, waiting with candy canes for photo-ops.)

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The cheerful climate betrayed both Santorum’s dour demeanor on the stump as well as the doom-and-gloom narrative of his campaign generally. This should not surprise, however, given that many of Santorum’s supporters present — he calls them his “warriors” — were in a similar position four years ago.

In the first week of November 2011, two months out from the January 3 caucuses, Santorum was an afterthought, averaging 3.5 percent in the Iowa polls. Those numbers remained essentially static for a month — he was at 4.5 percent in the first week of December — and even as they climbed slowly over the next few weeks, Santorum sat at just 7.7 percent on December 27, one week before the caucuses. Six days later, however, his average had more than doubled, to 16.3 percent, and on January 3 he shockingly won 24.6 percent of caucus-goers and edged Romney by 34 votes out of roughly 122,000 cast.

RELATED: No, There Won’t Be a Brokered Republican National Convention

It is this experience, together with the understanding that many Iowans don’t make up their minds until the final 72 hours of the race, that breeds confidence among Santorum’s six full-time staffers in Urbandale. Patti Brown, his Iowa co-chair and a veteran of his 2012 campaign, argues that they’re actually in better shape now than at this point four years ago.

“There are still a lot of people that have this mentality that the caucuses come right after Christmas. That means we have a full month extra to convince them,” Brown says. She is about to elaborate, but Brown, known in Iowa GOP circles as something of a political Mother Goose, scampers away to make sure everyone has a plate of food.

Santorum describes himself as ‘not the sexiest guy in the room’ but ‘the guy you bring home to mom at the end of the evening.’

That’s when Walt Rogers, a state representative and Santorum’s Iowa chairman, steps in. He projects less bullishness than Brown, acknowledging that Santorum has struggled to gain traction. This is not just because of the larger field, Rogers says, but because his rivals, especially Cruz and Ben Carson, have stolen Santorum’s 2012 Iowa blueprint. “They’re copying the Santorum model: Get out into the field, get captains set up, organize,” Rogers says.

The theory for how Santorum bests a bigger field (and better-organized opposition) is simple: Caucus-goers, after flirting with newcomers, will eventually return to the fold and vote for a familiar face. Santorum describes himself as “not the sexiest guy in the room” but “the guy you bring home to mom at the end of the evening.” Rogers adds, “People think we had our chance, but we think those people who have put him on the shelf, after looking around, will come back and support him again.” Asked for evidence of this, Rogers says: “It’s mostly anecdotal.”

Truth is, familiarity has not proven an ally for Santorum — or for Mike Huckabee, the state’s 2008 winner. The problem for both is that while some supporters (such as Brown and Rogers, in Santorum’s case) are behind them again, many others have sought out fresh Republican faces.

Jamie Johnson has witnessed this firsthand. A former member of the GOP state central committee who backed Huckabee in 2008 and worked for Santorum in 2012, Johnson foretold their common dilemma in February when both were readying to run. “The ground has shif­ted. The game has changed,” he said at the time. “Yes­ter­day’s hits won’t win today’s ballgames.” (Johnson joined Rick Perry’s campaign shortly thereafter.)

RELATED: Rubio vs. Cruz: The Fight for Conservatism

Santorum blames himself for this, saying he “dropped out of the political world” after 2012 and failed to cultivate his support. “I have seven kids,” he says. “I had to go out and fill the coffers up and pay for tuitions and medical bills. . . . So I wasn’t as active in politics. I didn’t stay as engaged and involved. I didn’t do what Mitt Romney did.” (Santorum did form a PAC, Patriot Voices, to issue statements on news events and support candidates in key primary states.)

“We knew that we’d be starting all over,” Santorum says. Still, he admits to being surprised at just how little support the past two Iowa winners have received: Huckabee’s Iowa average as of December 21, according to RealClearPolitics, is 2 percent; Santorum sits at 0.7 percent.

“The interesting thing is that Mike started way up [in the polls]. He was in the mid to high teens,” Santorum says, allowing a grin. “And now his numbers are pretty much where mine are.”

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The chief obstacle to Santorum’s winning Iowa has a name: Ted Cruz. The fiery Texan has rapidly consolidated the conservative vote here and locked up the support of many former Santorum backers, including Bob Vander Plaats of The Family Leader, an Iowa social-conservative organization. Recent polls show Cruz padding his lead atop the polls on the strength of his performance among Evangelicals and tea-partiers, suddenly making him the clear front-runner to win the caucuses.

All of which fuels, and helps to explain, Santorum’s disgust. No single candidate has irked his opponents this cycle like Cruz, and Santorum’s campaign in particular has come to detest the freshman senator. Matt Beynon, Santorum’s spokesman, repeatedly singles out Cruz for “hypocrisy” on everything from immigration to ethanol subsidies to refugees. Rogers, asked why they target Cruz, responds, “People loathe him in Congress. And you wonder, why is that? I’ve served in the House, and seen politicians who are hated by others, and it’s a matter of just being collegial and cordial. He can’t do that, and it gives me pause.”

Asked whether Cruz is a conservative, Santorum counters, ‘I think conservatives think he’s a conservative.’

Santorum denies that Cruz is under his skin — and then proceeds to rattle off issues on which the senator has misled voters. Asked whether Cruz is a conservative, Santorum counters, “I think conservatives think he’s a conservative.” But does Santorum? “I think he is on some issues. I don’t think he’s a national-security conservative. . . . The fact that he’s out there calling people ‘neocons’ tells you that he doesn’t see himself as a conservative. You don’t accuse someone of being a neocon if you see yourself as a Reagan conservative on national security.”

Santorum also argues that Cruz isn’t a conservative on immigration, taking Marco Rubio’s side in the crossfire over Cruz’s amendment to the Gang of Eight bill that would have legalized some illegal immigrants. Santorum is hardly shilling for Rubio; he argues that the Florida senator, like Cruz, is not a true conservative despite his reputation and anti-establishment campaign for the Senate. “I think he was the standard-bearer for the tea party [in 2010] because of who he was running against. He was running against Charlie Crist, who after that became a Democrat,” Santorum says with a smirk. “He’s certainly not as conservative as me.”

So goes the Rick Santorum 2016 campaign. Speech by speech, Pizza Ranch by Pizza Ranch, he argues to audiences large and small (predominantly the latter) that he’s the most conservative candidate running for president. That the newcomers talk a good game but haven’t delivered results. That he’s been fighting these fights for decades. That voters have a responsibility to elect someone prepared to become commander-in-chief, someone with scars from fighting the social wars, someone with blue-collar appeal who won in a blue state. Someone like him.

#related#But it’s not catching on. And Santorum, despite deploying the wishful-thinking parallels to 2012, has run enough races to realize it. Even when voters love his message, he admits, they tell him they’re not supporting him because of his standing in the polls. It’s a self-perpetuating dynamic that robs Santorum of the foundational support needed to legitimize his candidacy and attract converts. And this, he admits, prompts “the anger I had four years ago — which I think I’ve put into a cage this time — [it’s] when I hear what people are saying, that they like me but they can’t vote for me.”

What if that doesn’t change? Santorum’s answer is less angry than it is melancholy. “I’m going to go out there and do my best,” he says, “out on the national stage in front of everybody, and talk about the importance of having a leader who can bring this country together and lead it both morally and economically as well as protect it from the great threats we face as a nation.”

“I think I’m fully prepared to do that. I feel called to do that. And I’m okay if America lets me answer that call.” He pauses. “Or if they don’t.”

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