NR Digital

The Rise of Rick

by Robert Costa
A report on the Santorum insurgency

Johnston, Iowa — One hot August night in Ames, Rick Santorum stood on the basketball court at Iowa State University’s Hilton Coliseum and huddled with his wife, Karen. Few people noticed him, and his handlers, if he had any, were elsewhere. Reporters breezed past the couple to chat with big-name strategists working for Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty. Steps away, under a cavern of Klieg lights, Sean Hannity spoke with Michele Bachmann, who was expected to sweep the upcoming Republican straw poll. Santorum, surveying the scene, scowled. As he waited for Bachmann to finish the interview, he tapped his foot like a backup player itching to get into the game. “This is unbelievable,” he told Karen, shaking his head. “Two questions in the beginning, and I had to wave my hand to get them

Five months later, on a bitterly cold January night in central Iowa, Santorum took the stage at the Stoney Creek Inn, and those summer doldrums were long forgotten. Suddenly, in the final sprint toward the caucuses, he achieved a last-minute ascent, and with a strong showing in the Hawkeye State, catapulted into national prominence. Santorum — until recently a B-list former lawmaker, one whom the talk-show producers kept waiting — became the latest to take a star turn in the GOP field.

Santorum’s Iowa showing shocked Beltway pundits, many of whom wrote him off months ago. They credit his long, strange trip into the primary’s top tier to the isolated enthusiasm of midwestern evangelicals and to finicky conservatives who settled late on an also-ran. But on the trail, at Pizza Ranch restaurants and small-town diners, it’s clear that Santorum’s climb is about more than luck or the whims of Iowa’s social conservatives. It’s not about celebrity, either. His usual outfit — single-color, slightly pilled sweater-vests over pressed white shirts — is the look of the ill-at-ease soccer dad, not the confident frontrunner. Republicans have flocked to him at the eleventh hour, encouraged by his dogged, shoe-string operation, by his accessible, at-ease manner, and, perhaps most notable, by the power of reinvention

A little more than five years ago, Santorum, then a member of the Senate GOP leadership, lost his reelection bid in Pennsylvania to Democrat Bob Casey, the lackluster scion of a popular governor. Even though Santorum was only in his mid-forties, his political obituary was filed. But he neglected to pass away: Instead, he became a television commentator and a popular figure in the conservative movement, stumping for candidates and sustaining relationships with activists. He became, in the words of one aide, “looser, less stuffy.” When he was at the top of the Washington heap, he became a tad insulated, friends say, and it was only when he was tossed into the wilderness that he began to seriously engage grassroots groups, working with them as a compatriot and not as a high-powered politician

In 2010, Santorum jumped on the Iowa “judge bus” and helped knock liberal justices off of the state’s high court. That experience introduced him to many of the volunteers who now work as lead organizers on his presidential campaign, including Chuck Laudner, the political strategist who directed his Iowa efforts. “It’s been a blast to watch this thing come together,” Laudner says. “The biggest thing, to me personally, is that we’re having fun — he’s having fun. We built this campaign from the ground up,” he says. Early on, Santorum recognized that he’d have to use a different campaign model than the rest of the field. With few reporters paying attention, no money, and a candidate who looked more like a math teacher than a leading man, Laudner says that “everything that we knew about how to generate momentum, in terms of ads and media,” was discarded. Organization, the campaign’s only option, became paramount.

Santorum, often packing only his cellphone and a book, jumped into the “Chuck Truck,” the silver Dodge Ram 1500 pickup owned and driven by Laudner. Together, the pair set off to hamlets and small cities, from Sioux City to Davenport, asking voters, one by one, to consider Santorum and to sign up to be “caucus captains,” the people who speak in the candidate’s behalf at each of Iowa’s 1,774 voting precincts. By early December, Santorum and Laudner had enlisted hundreds. By mid-December, as Santorum began to finally get a look from on-the-fence Republicans, that number began to creep above 1,000. The website for the campaign, RickSantorum.com, was besieged with donations large and small. From July through September, the campaign collected a mere $700,000. By New Year’s Day, it was skyrocketing beyond that.

All this was the consequence, Laudner says, not of a debate zinger or a snazzy ad, but of Santorum’s dedication to the road and the 350-plus town-hall meetings he held in farming and meat-packing communities that barely appear on the state map. Now, as the candidate looks ahead, Santorum’s nascent, tight-knit team faces significant hurdles. But his Iowa method underscores his ability to put together a coalition of open-minded Republicans who respect his old-school politicking in the age of Facebook and Twitter. Many of those voters are suspicious of Romney and uncomfortable with Ron Paul’s doctrinaire libertarianism. They’re open to someone who can connect the tea-party impulse of the primary to the reality of conservative governance.

In coming weeks, Santorum’s challenge will be to build upon his success — tapping donors, hiring staff — and to dodge the attacks from Romney and the other candidates left standing. During the final sprint in Iowa, Santorum was trailed by swarms of journalists, from print scribes and network producers to pushy Swiss bloggers. As one might expect, Santorum is confident that he can sustain his surge. Iowa evangelicals may have bolstered his bid, but he sees himself as a full-spectrum conservative: an insurgent, to be sure, but one with mainstream potential.

“I’m out there talking about faith, family, limited government, and strong national security,” Santorum says. “That’s what people don’t really understand about my campaign. It’s not different messages for different folks. Instead, we have a very strong and consistent message, one about who we are as Americans. The foundations of that are faith and family, as well as free markets and limited government.” In other words, as he looks to contrast himself with Romney, Santorum is casting his late-breaking candidacy as a national one, taking a different tack than Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and Baptist preacher who won the Iowa caucuses last cycle but fizzled when he struggled to build on his evangelical base.

Santorum believes that he can use his Senate savvy to complement the fervor stirred up in Iowa. “It’s now about the next step, keeping the character of the campaign intact, that Iowa spirit, and broadening the themes,” says one senior adviser. “You’ll hear more about his story.” Indeed, at this stage in the race, the years on Capitol Hill are a plus, Santorum says, with scars from the Clinton wars marking him as a conservative warrior, as opposed to Romney’s CEO. If he can raise enough money, his team believes, there is an opening to make Romney sweat on two fronts — knocking him both on his conservatism and on his experience, inviting voters to choose between a veteran legislator and a management consultant.

Romney, who earlier this season jockeyed for position with a pair of House members (Paul, Bachmann) and a scandal-plagued pizza magnate (Herman Cain), could have a trickier time with Santorum. In late January and February, “there is going to be a conservative alternative,” Santorum says, and, with his Iowa breakthrough, he’s poised to keep rising as the field tightens, battling Romney deep into the spring. “I think we’re in a position to do that,” Santorum says. “We just haven’t had many ups and downs. We just haven’t.”

When he meets with voters, Santorum touts his low-key hustle, urging supporters to enlist for what could be a long, brutal contest. “Mitt Romney has a lot of money; I have a lot of energy,” he said at one event in western Iowa. At the most basic level, he says, the decision is between settling on a moderate or nominating a fighter. Republicans, he predicts, will choose him, the candidate with “energy and ideas who’s willing to face the tough questions.” It’s a simple argument, one rooted in Republican unease with Romney, who has been an able campaigner this year but hardly a conservative favorite.

Santorum suggests that the difference between him and Romney is not merely political but also temperamental — the privileged son of a millionaire governor versus the scrappy grandson of a coal miner who grew up in a middle-class home in western Pennsylvania, the son of an Italian immigrant. Santorum’s electoral record, for the most part, shows that his blue-collar Catholic appeal, coupled with his firebrand rhetoric, is more than some scrambling strategy. In fact, it’s worked for the 53-year-old attorney since he emerged on the political scene in 1990 as a 32-year-old House candidate who was ignored by the National Republican Congressional Committee but still managed to oust Democrat Doug Walgren, a seven-term incumbent from the Pittsburgh suburbs. Four years later, running for the Senate, Santorum toppled another influential liberal, incumbent Democrat Harris Wofford.

In 2000, he was reelected in an increasingly Democratic state. That year, George W. Bush lost Pennsylvania, but Santorum won handily, boosted by a better-than-expected margin in the wealthy, socially moderate Philadelphia suburbs. Then, as in Iowa, Santorum credited his zealous commitment to retail politics. His critics rarely point to these earlier races as an indicator of his prowess, citing the benefits of incumbency for his 2000 win and the Republican wave for his 1994 upset. In their eyes, he is still the Rick Santorum of 2006, who suffered an 18-point loss to Casey.

But John Brabender, Santorum’s close associate and chief adviser since his first congressional race, rejects the notion that Santorum’s 2006 campaign is an omen of disaster. He calls the Casey race an outlier, and those who focus on it, he says, miss the broader lessons of Santorum’s career, as well as his promise. “You’ve got to remember his history,” Brabender says. “At the beginning, he had no chance, and then he wins. In 1992, they redistrict him into a Democrat-heavy district, and he wins in a year Clinton won Pennsylvania. If you think about it, every time he runs, no one thinks he can survive. The stuff we’ve heard all year, it’s nothing new. Obviously, 2006 was one of those years where we beat our heads against the wall. There wasn’t much we could do. But people tend to forget that he has always surprised, that he relishes coming back and winning difficult areas.”

Romney’s counterargument has been that Santorum’s real problem isn’t so much his electability as his credibility. He may have wooed Iowans, supported by a bloc of pastors and Corn Belt conservatives — but, as Romney sees it, Santorum spent much of the past two decades as a Republican grandee with close ties to big-government spenders and K Street lobbyists. Santorum’s critics point out that, after leaving office, he did work for legislative-policy groups in Washington — work that, while common enough among former legislators, is not far removed from lobbying. Romney’s partisans argue that Santorum will be forced to address the full scope of his senatorial record — especially his embrace of earmarks, including the “Bridge to Nowhere,” the infamous Alaska boondoggle.

As Santorum plods ahead, that’s but one of the political ghosts haunting him. Beyond policy particulars, Santorum has some conservatives concerned about his political judgment. They respect him, they admire him, and they applaud his family, which has endured tremendous personal trauma. (In 1996, he and Karen had a son, Gabriel, who died soon after birth; their daughter, Bella, has trisomy 18, a genetic disorder.) But when it comes to politics, he hasn’t won everyone’s trust. Explaining his 2008 endorsement of the man he is now running against, Santorum told NBC News: “I made, I hate to say it, a calculated political decision,” backing Romney to reduce Sen. John McCain’s chances. That’s a tough admission for a campaign that asks voters to elevate conservative principle over cold pragmatism.

And conservatives have not forgotten Santorum’s 2004 endorsement of liberal Republican Arlen Specter, then the senior senator from Pennsylvania. At the time, Specter was struggling in a close primary against conservative darling Pat Toomey. Many Toomey backers believe that if Santorum had supported their guy, he would have won instead of losing a nail-biter, and they’re still bitter about it. Even Santorum’s confidants concede that that episode could hurt his credentials as a conservative stalwart.

Brabender, for his part, isn’t worried. In Iowa, Santorum has proved that he can talk like a senator while campaigning like a tea-party unknown. “He thinks it was actually beneficial for him to get out of Washington for a while,” Brabender says. “It turned out to be a huge benefit, as he began to look at a presidential run, since he came into this with fresh eyes, not as someone in a position of power.” Santorum remains the wonky, youthful politician he’s always been, but now he’s shown that he has survival instincts. That may be enough to keep his campaign going beyond the Iowa cornfields.

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