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.