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.”
Indeed, Santorum is the first to have secured state directors and chairmen in both Iowa and New Hampshire, places he has visited a combined 18 times so far. And Santorum said he’s currently interviewing prospective staff in South Carolina, host of the nation’s second GOP primary and a state he has visited 10 times.
“I have someone in my sights,” he said of a South Carolina state director, while Brabender noted that other national announcements are expected in the coming two weeks. “They’re people from specific early states, but they’re more national consultants,” said Brabender, an adviser to 2008 presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani.
Santorum is baffled as to why the rest of the Republican field isn’t more active with the first presidential debate just three months away.
“As far I can see, I’m the only one that actually has spent time in all three early primary states. It is February. It’s pretty bizarre,” he said, noting that he’s doing the best he can with the opening he’s been given. “I’ve never been accused of either winning or losing a race by not working hard enough. My daddy just recently passed away. That was the thing he drummed into my head more than anything else ­— 10 percent inspiration, 90 percent perspiration. Work, work, work.”
But as his prospective opponents are well aware, Santorum has challenges. He often finds himself embroiled in controversy, most recently for inserting President Barack Obama’s race into the abortion debate.
Further, Dennehy noted that while Santorum may like to paint himself as an outsider, he served in Congress for 16 years — two terms in the House and two terms in the Senate. And Republicans have not forgotten the drubbing he took in his 2006 re-election bid.
Santorum largely shrugs off the embarrassing 18-point loss to Sen. Bob Casey (D) four years ago.
It was a “no win” election, he said, claiming that several successful 2010 GOP candidates, such as Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.), would have lost in that Democratic year.
But the loss, and the subsequent four years out of office, also gives Santorum an opportunity to downplay his connection to the Washington establishment.
“I have a lot of friendships, but when I left the Senate — you can check with my colleagues up on the Hill, they’d say, ‘Yeah, he left,’” Santorum said. “I don’t think endorsements mean a whole lot anyway. So I’m not going to go chasing around someone from — pick a state. The endorsement of someone from Iowa or South Carolina helps. But I don’t think someone from Washington state helps me, or Washington, D.C.”
That said, Santorum has consulted with friend David Urban, a Washington-based GOP operative and former chief of staff to then-Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt “Romney has the problem I think of having been the architect of the Obama health care plan. Is there anybody who thinks Sarah Palin is going to be president? No. You go down the list of possibles and you get to the point where Rick Santorum can be president,” Urban said. “Don’t ever forget that Rick is a conservative’s conservative and he’s always been that way. He has a base that is not only deep in certain states, but also wide.”
It’s unclear, however, how much of Santorum’s base is from his home state.
The Democratic firm Public Policy Polling last month found that just 38 percent of Pennsylvania voters have a favorable opinion of him. And in a hypothetical contest, Santorum trailed Obama
48 percent to 40 percent.
“Let’s be honest. You don’t have to win Pennsylvania to win the [general] election,” he said. “I mean there are 105 electoral votes that Barack Obama won in states in this last election cycle that went overwhelmingly red. I’ve got to win those states if I’m in this race.”
Republican fundraising consultant Carolyn Machado agreed that Santorum’s donor base does extend beyond Pennsylvania but said that he “will need to get his name out there on a much larger scale to catch lightning in a bottle” like fundraising magnets Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) or Nevada GOP Senate candidate Sharron Angle.
“Right now the name of the presidential game is organization, hiring talent and building strong teams both in the key states and on the campaign. Santorum seems to be moving aggressively on this front and making the case that he is the conservative to watch,” Machado said. “If Palin or [Rep. Michele] Bachmann decline to run, he could be right.”
Meanwhile, Santorum’s next test will come at this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference.
He will be among the featured speakers Thursday afternoon. And he hopes for a solid finish — or at least one that exceeds expectations — in Saturday’s straw poll.