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Santorum Sticks With Trusted Strategist

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum speaks with supporters Tuesday at a rally aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown as he prepares for the South Carolina primary on Saturday.

In 1990, Brabender caught wind of a lawyer in his then-hometown of Pittsburgh looking to run for Congress. Republicans viewed Santorum as a long shot, and they confessed to Brabender that they were trying to talk him into running for the state House instead.

But Santorum took on seven-term Rep. Doug Walgren (D) in the competitive district, with Brabender as his chief ad man and strategist. They were outspent by a 3-to-1 margin, but Santorum eked out a 2-point win.

Two years later, Democrats redrew the Congressional boundaries with the aim of eliminating Santorum. He won again, with Brabender at his side.

"On his best day, Rick Santorum is not in sync with Pennsylvania," said Larry Ceisler, a veteran Democratic consultant in Pennsylvania. "And that's another credit in Brabender's cap. Rick won a suburban Pittsburgh district. ... That's not exactly conservative territory there."

In 1994, Santorum ran an underdog race against then-Sen. Harris Wofford, a fundraising powerhouse and White House darling, and he edged out the Democrat by a 2-point margin. In 2000, Democrats recruited then-Rep. Ron Klink to face Santorum, but the Republican defeated him handily.

Then came the big loss of 2006. After rising to become the third-ranking Senate Republican, Santorum faced a stiff re-election challenge from then-state Treasurer Bob Casey, a scion of Pennsylvania's most famous Democratic family. Brabender used every ad trick in his creative arsenal, implementing humor in the wrestling advertisement or poking fun at Casey's several subsequent different runs for offices on a billboard.

But nothing moved the numbers much, and Santorum lost re-election by a massive margin of almost 20 points.

Several years later, in the summer of 2010, Santorum came back to Brabender with another idea: a national campaign.

"He and I kicked it around for a while," Brabender recalled. "It was like, 'We just lost by 18 points. If you run for president, is anybody going to buy that?'"

But the two men believed Santorum would play well in Iowa and were hopeful he would finish in the top three in the caucuses.

"If we could, then the fact that he lost in Pennsylvania could go away," Brabender said. "And it sort of did."

Santorum battled with Romney for first place in Iowa earlier this month, coming just several votes short of victory — although the final tally will not be certified until this morning. Now, with New Hampshire in the rearview mirror and South Carolina only two days away, Brabender has the biggest challenge of his career and one of his smallest budgets.

Among the GOP operative class, Brabender is known for high-quality, creative productions — a potential problem for Santorum's parsimonious presidential campaign. He's also famous for nailing negative ads by being funny.

"The way he does it, it's often with humor, and it's often with more imaginative types of ads than some of his colleagues put together," said Mark Holman, Ridge's longtime confidant and former chief of staff.

Brabender hasn't had the opportunity to do much of either yet on Santorum's campaign.

The campaign spent $30,000 on advertisements in Iowa and chump change on spots in New Hampshire. It has reserved $1.5 million in ads through the end of the week in South Carolina.

That's a fraction of the $9 million that Santorum spent on TV in his 2006 re-election campaign.

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