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Santorum Talks Low, Aims High

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Former Sen. Rick Santorum, seen here at last month’s March for Life on the National Mall, is traveling extensively to early 2012 presidential primary states ahead of an expected bid.

He is a self-described long shot eager to downplay expectations, but former Sen. Rick Santorum’s quixotic presidential bid might not turn out to be so quixotic.

Even as his popularity sags at home, the two-term Pennsylvania Senator has quietly outworked the prospective Republican field in three critical early-primary states, benefited from a growing national grass-roots fundraising network and caught the attention of one of the nation’s most respected conservative pundits.

Santorum is making a case to be taken seriously in the nation’s premier 2012 electoral battle. And absent the likes of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, he may just have a shot.

“The goal for me is to exceed expectations, which for me right now is pretty easy,” the 52-year-old told Roll Call late last week while on the buzzing second floor of a Dupont Circle cafe. “I’ve never been a favorite of the political class here in Washington, D.C. ... They counted me out of almost every single race I ever ran, so why would this be any different?”

The underdog storyline, delivered with Santorum’s longtime top political consultant, John Brabender, sipping coffee at his side, is clearly one that the former lawmaker relishes. But it’s also one that’s beginning to be interrupted by glimmers of confidence.

He exceeded expectations by finishing third in the money race among prospective presidential candidates over the last reporting period, totals released last week that coincided with the publication of conservative pundit George Will’s laudatory column: “If unemployment is still above 9 percent in 2012, almost any Republican can win, and if there is a convincing recovery the party had better nominate someone who can energize its base,” Will wrote. “That is only a theory, but this is a fact: Social conservatives are much of that base, are feeling neglected and are looking for someone like Santorum.”

‘90 Percent Perspiration’

Santorum has been noticed in New Hampshire, where he’s battled former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty in recent weeks for the allegiance of the first-in-the-nation primary state’s Republican activists.

“I never want to discount him because of how he treats New Hampshire,” said Mike Dennehy, a Granite State native and the former national political director for Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) presidential bid. “If Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee runs and skips New Hampshire, it opens up the cultural conservatives to support someone else, and Rick Santorum is here. He fills that space.”

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