Rick Santorum is embraced by conservatives on the campaign trail. On the rope lines, gray-haired activists crowd around his tall frame, lightly grip his sweater-vest-covered shoulder, and whisper good wishes. Well-scrubbed college Republicans cheer his white-hot rhetoric; industrial workers, clad in Carhartt jackets, applaud his blue-collar message. With his attractive family, his open faith, and his pluck, he connects. But since early February, when he began his rapid ascent in the national polls, Santorum’s appeal has been dented. At the debates and on the airwaves, his decade-plus stint on Capitol Hill has come under criticism. Voters have been reminded, usually by Mitt Romney, that Santorum is — a politician.
Conservatives are rediscovering that he has not always been, as his stump speech suggests, a Jim DeMint type, a crusading foe of the party’s leadership. Instead, he is cast by his opponents, with varying degrees of accuracy, as the consummate Beltway power broker — an ally of the Bush White House and a cunning cloakroom operator. Tea-party Republicans find this unsettling. But a review of Santorum’s Washington experience reveals a blend of outsider and establishment figure.
As a legislator and as an influential Pennsylvania politico, Santorum was a right-wing stalwart, to be sure. But as he defended traditional marriage and supported the Bush administration’s foreign policy, Santorum was also a practical lawmaker. He steered appropriations bills through the Senate; he ladled cash to home-state interests. When he needed a cosponsor, a vote, or a friend, he forged alliances — with moderate Republicans and Democrats. That included working with Arlen Specter, the influential senior senator from Santorum’s state who switched from the Republican to the Democratic party during the first year of the Obama administration.
When Specter was challenged by GOP congressman Pat Toomey in the 2004 Pennsylvania primary, Santorum heartily endorsed the incumbent — to the chagrin of conservatives, who, then and now, despise the ornery, liberal Specter. Specter, who eked out a narrow primary victory and was reelected, went on to cast a decisive vote in favor of Obama’s health-care bill. Romney and his surrogates have described Santorum’s endorsement as enabling that victory for Obama. Santorum claims that he spoke with Specter before endorsing him in 2004 and was promised a quid pro quo: If Specter became chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he would support Bush’s judicial nominees. Specter disputes Santorum’s account.
Regardless of what really happened, the Specter endorsement, like much else that Santorum did during his Senate career, was a crafty political maneuver. It was as much about keeping his own seat — in swing-state Pennsylvania, and at the leadership table — as it was about his convictions. Specter had helped Santorum win his first Senate race in 1994, and in the ensuing decade, they had become legislative partners. In endorsing Specter, Santorum was doing a favor for a fellow Pennsylvanian, and sending a signal to Senate Republicans — many of whom were wary of his ideology — that though he may not agree with Specter’s politics, he could play ball.
One other episode has haunted Santorum. As the GOP conference chairman in 2001, he helped shepherd President Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation to passage. Due to its far-reaching federal mandates, it remains deeply unpopular with conservatives. During a recent CNN debate in Arizona, Santorum infamously struggled to defend his role in bringing it about. “When you’re part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team, for the leader, and I made a mistake,” he said. The crowd booed. He turned toward them and scowled. “You know, politics is a team sport, folks,” he said. Romney grinned as Santorum drifted, and the next day used Santorum’s line against him. “I wonder which team he was taking it for,” Romney told a trade group in Phoenix. “My team is the American people, not the insiders in Washington.”
Santorum advisers roll their eyes at that gibe. But many of them acknowledge that Santorum’s tendency to “get lost in the weeds,” as one of them puts it, rarely benefits the campaign. Another Santorum hand, long familiar with the senator’s freewheeling style, frames Santorum’s method as unabashed truth-telling. But both worry about whether it’s effective.
The aides admit that Santorum supported many efforts despite finding them unsavory, including the notorious “Bridge to Nowhere” and countless other pork projects. He supported the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, even though he had private concerns about its effect on the federal deficit. And yes, the advisers say, when he voted for various legislative packages over the years, he sometimes voted against his conscience: specifically, on sprawling appropriations bills that included funding for Planned Parenthood.
Nonetheless, John Brabender, Santorum’s senior strategist, is confident that his candidate can handle the scrutiny. In an interview in mid-February, he predicted that Romney and other contenders might try to make the race about Santorum’s record, should the senator continue to rise. And if so, then bring it on, he told me. Santorum may get criticized for this vote or that vote, he says, but Republicans will ultimately overlook the former senator’s miscues. Compared with Romney, who ushered to passage a controversial health-care program in Massachusetts, or Newt Gingrich, who has supported various eccentric initiatives, Santorum has a pretty clean record, Brabender says. He expects that by the end of the primary fight, Santorum, perhaps a tad bruised, will emerge as the “true” conservative.
“People have no doubts that Rick Santorum is a trusted conservative,” Brabender says. He argues that Romney has flip-flopped on many issues over the course of his career, but Santorum, even when he was facing stiff political headwinds in 2006, ran as a conservative. It was only Santorum’s strategy in the Senate — not his principles — that bent with circumstances. “I don’t have to spend a lot of time telling people to trust him,” Brabender says. “What I do have to do is contrast his record with the other candidates’.”
With fewer dollars and a smaller campaign than Team Romney, doing that will be difficult. Romney’s flaws have been widely discussed since he first began running for the presidency in 2007. Santorum has been a national personality, but he has been best known, even to political-junkie Republicans, mainly as a culture warrior. No more. As the primary trudges toward the spring, Santorum will likely be taking fire from many additional fronts. Even Ron Paul is running ads against Santorum, calling him a “fake.”
“Look, I never said this was going to be easy,” Santorum told me in a mid-February interview. “That’s part of running a national campaign. They’re going to drop the kitchen sink on us.” Remember, “a few weeks ago people were asking me why I was still in the race.” As he sees it, to fret publicly about a few bad votes would play into Romney’s hands. He will, as ever, address any pressing concerns; he’ll express regret when appropriate. But he will not linger on the parts of his past that his opponents criticize. If anything, he says, he wants to weave his record as a whole into his case that he is conservative. In fact, he loves roaming through his personal political history, as his long-winded narratives at town-hall meetings attest. He can happily spend hours recalling his effort to enact welfare reform in 1996, when he gained notice for trading punches with the upper chamber’s liberal titans Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Ted Kennedy.
I’ve seen Santorum in this mode up close, at diner counters and in high-school auditoriums. Santorum can be a force. He is a knowledgeable and articulate candidate. “I see this as part teacher, part storyteller, part leader,” he told me on the eve of the Florida primary. “You try to connect with an audience, bring them in, and tell them not just what you believe but why.” Since leaving the Senate, while biding his time in the wilderness as a Fox News pundit, he has vocally criticized the Beltway crowd of both parties. He opposed the bank bailouts, the auto bailout, and the stimulus. But at his core, he is a politician — determined and brave, but also calculating, and sometimes undisciplined. “He’s sincere, he’s aggressive, but he has some limitations,” says former Pennsylvania congressman Phil English, a Romney supporter who managed Santorum’s first House race. “He’s also divisive. He still has a propensity to blurt out things.”
But only sometimes, says Ron Haskins, a former Senate staffer who worked closely with Santorum on welfare reform: “He has a reputation for being a wild man, but in the way he actually works behind the scenes, working with Democrats and Republicans, he’s very reasoned, calm, and dispassionate.” In other words, he’s a team player — focused on moving the ball, and maneuvering as necessary. Convincing voters to see him that way is now one of the main challenges of his surprisingly potent campaign.