Uneven as a Senator, Santorum Not Perceived as Presidential

It’s typical in Washington to look at a Senator and see a president; Rick Santorum elicited no such illusions during a 12-year Senate career that ended in 2007.

Republicans familiar with Santorum’s Senate tenure said that his prospects for capitalizing on a surprisingly strong second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses depend on which “Rick” shows up in the primary campaigns to come. “He was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” said a former Senate Republican leadership aide who served on Capitol Hill when Santorum was a Senator. “He was great at delivering the GOP message, but then he would say outrageous things and get himself into trouble.”

Santorum, elected to represent a Western Pennsylvania House district in 1990 and then to the Senate in 1994, is remembered as a politician of contradictions.

He polled strongly enough with Democrats to win re-election in 2000, outperforming George W. Bush, who lost the Keystone State to Vice President Al Gore; six years later Santorum lost re-election by a wider margin than any other GOP Senator on the ballot. The conventional view of Santorum is of an inflexible, right-wing Republican, but he also can be a political pragmatist. In 2004, he campaigned hard to help then-Sen. Arlen Specter, a moderate, defeat conservative favorite Pat Toomey in a GOP primary.

On Capitol Hill, Santorum is remembered as a Member who was at times smart, politically astute and a capable Senate Republican Conference chairman. Former staffers remember him as a kind boss, and Republican lobbyists say he was a talented fundraiser who helped his fellow Republicans haul cash.

However, he regularly undermined himself. His often-abrasive personal style irritated fellow Senators, while his lack of discipline and penchant for unscripted remarks regularly created unnecessary political headaches.

“For a presidential campaign and the scrutiny that comes with it, Rick has a problem: He’s just not a stick-to-the-script guy and never will be,” a former Senate leadership adviser said. “He speaks from the heart, that’s just who he is.”

Former staffers recall instances in which Santorum would cast aside prepared remarks before important political speeches and instead speak extemporaneously, including during the 2006 election cycle when his targeted re-election bid against now-Sen. Bob Casey (D) received constant, heavy scrutiny from the national media. This style could be problematic in a presidential campaign, where rhetorical discipline and repetition are often imperative to success.

As he ramped up his appearances in New Hampshire ahead of that state’s first-in-the-nation primary on Tuesday, Santorum seemed to acknowledge his penchant for impolitic statements even as he made one.

Responding to a question about devoutly religious candidates at a town hall on Thursday, Santorum said, “We always need a Jesus candidate,” according to a Twitter post from John Harwood of the New York Times. He followed up by saying, “I know you’re not supposed to talk about that in NH,” Harwood noted.

Santorum is highly knowledgeable on the issues, the former Senate leadership adviser said. But his habit of speaking off the cuff “can lead him to say things that in hindsight he might regret.”

During his Senate tenure, Santorum also came under fire from other GOP leaders, and even the Bush White House, for what they saw as unwise frankness.

After Senate Republicans helped approve a Democratic amendment to the Medicare prescription drug bill in 2003, Santorum admitted to a Roll Call reporter that GOP Members only voted for it to deny Democrats a talking point. But he said the provision to cut lawmakers’ prescription drug benefits would be stripped in a House-Senate conference run by Republicans.

“We weren’t going to condone it publicly by taking it seriously. So we all voted for it,” Santorum said at the time.

In September 2005, an angry Santorum took on the Bush administration for bungling its post-election push to overhaul Social Security.

“You’ve just defeated your opponent, and you know, you take a 3-iron to the beehive,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at the time. “You go out there and whack the beehive, and you wonder why all these bees are buzzing around your head. And not only do you whack the beehive, but then you don’t do anything more for two months.”

Santorum had been one of the chief advocates in the Senate for transitioning Social Security into private accounts and had tried to rally his split party around a bill.

But Santorum’s ability to sustain his newfound position as presidential contender should not be underestimated, say others who have followed his political career. They describe Santorum as, essentially, a 1990s and early 2000s Republican: in favor of smaller government and interested in overhauling social programs, but still of the opinion that government has a role to play in determining society’s direction.

That would fit with Santorum’s call for special tax breaks for manufacturing companies to revive middle-class employment. However, those policies are somewhat out of step with today’s conservative, tea party ethos that opposes the idea of Washington picking winners and losers among industries.

David Urban, a Republican lobbyist and former Specter chief of staff who hails from Western Pennsylvania, said Santorum is very likable and an extremely talented retail politician. That could be why, after living in Iowa for months and assiduously courting GOP voters there, Santorum finished a mere 8 votes behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, despite spending and raising less money than his competitors.

“People connect with him; people like Rick,” Urban said. “The mainstream press portrays him in a certain light, and then when people meet him, they say, ‘He’s not like that at all.’”

A second Republican lobbyist cautioned against viewing Santorum strictly through the prism of his outspoken social conservatism, which some of his supporters concede overshadows the less provocative issues he has championed.

During his Senate tenure, Santorum regularly hosted fundraisers for his Republican colleagues in Pennsylvania, including the moderate Members of his party. His relationship with K Street was also strong, a quality that drew criticism from opponents during his Senate tenure. And that cozy association with lobbyists might not be worth bragging about in the current political environment. But those connections apparently served him well politically.

“He had top staff, excellent political operations and he set up a Pennsylvania-based fundraising operation that generated mega-dollars for his colleagues,” a GOP lobbyist said.