In a private meeting of House conservatives last week, a lobbyist describing himself as Capitol Hill's point man for the Santorum campaign made a pitch for the candidate.
The political moment, in a policy setting, made observers uncomfortable and revealed just how worried former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is about his spotty reputation on Capitol Hill and K Street.
The lobbyist — Bill Wichterman, a senior legislative adviser at Covington & Burling — is helping to round up support and cash for Santorum, whose recent victories in GOP "beauty contests" in Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota have made him the latest alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Santorum has struggled to develop a cadre of support in Washington, D.C., and sources on and off the Hill say his unpredictable politics and personality have made him all but toxic. Wichterman, a longtime friend who worked as a policy adviser to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), is trying to change that.
In the meeting — a weekly gathering organized by the Republican Study Committee of more than 100 conservative Hill staffers and powerful outside players — Wichterman said he would serve as the liaison to the campaign.
"It was an unusual announcement," one senior Republican familiar with the meeting said. "But all he did was give his email address."
No other candidate has made a pitch like this, according to regular meeting attendees.
Until now, Santorum's campaign has made little effort to cultivate inside-the-Beltway support.
"It would probably have been a waste of time because [Washington] was betting on a Romney win," said one adviser to the Santorum campaign. "Prior to last Tuesday, I think D.C. and K Street had kind of decided that Romney was going to be the candidate."
Santorum has few endorsements from Members of Congress — the three House Republicans who have publicly backed Santorum all hail from his home state of Pennsylvania — while Romney has won the support of at least 75 Congressional Republicans.
Santorum may be on the hunt for more endorsements but is facing strong headwinds fueled by concerns about his record and the political risk of supporting an underdog.
"Republicans are wary after some of them came out of the gate and endorsed Rick Perry for president, and he obviously fell flat," said Ron Bonjean, a Republican public relations consultant at Singer Bonjean Strategies. "Those who come out for Santorum now are more than likely worried about shoring up their [tea party] support in Republican primaries."
Lobbyists are not exactly lining up behind him either. Only four lobbyists publicly support Santorum, compared with the more than 50 backing Romney, according to a Roll Call tally.
The campaign has held only a few Washington fundraisers, including one in January at Wichterman's house.
But the Santorum adviser said Washington money may not be that important to securing the Republican nomination.
"We're raising money hand over hand right now," he said, referencing the two weeks since the last round of primaries. "It's just falling from the sky. ... We are doing really well without D.C. fundraisers." Even though Santorum won in three states recently, the contests did not confer any actual convention delegates.
Santorum, elected to represent a Western Pennsylvania House district in 1990 and then to the Senate in 1994, is remembered as a savvy but erratic politician.
He can claim few friends on Capitol Hill among the most conservative offices thanks in large part to his aggressive campaign to help then-Sen. Arlen Specter — a Pennsylvania moderate — defeat conservative favorite Pat Toomey in the 2004 GOP primary.
"In terms of an actual Hill staffer, I could not name a single one who supports him," a senior Republican aide told Roll Call. "Doesn't mean there aren't any."
Santorum is not likely to be back in Washington until after Super Tuesday on March 6, giving him time to focus on campaigning in the states that could help prove his legitimacy to the Washington crowd, the campaign adviser said.
Wichterman is working particularly hard to court outside groups that can help mobilize voters, such as the Family Research Council, Frank Gaffney's American Center for Security Policy and FreedomWorks, the conservative organization, led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (Texas), that has pledged to support anyone but Romney.
But building a coalition like that — based largely on tea party types who recoil at the thought of lobbyist connections — raises another awkward contradiction in Santorum's strategy.
His close ties to K Street are no secret. He was the Senate liaison to the lobbying community for much of his tenure and has been linked to the K Street Project, a 1990s GOP effort to get Washington firms to hire Republicans in top positions. Tax returns released last week reveal that he has made millions of dollars as a D.C. consultant.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.