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.