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Uneven as a Senator, Santorum Not Perceived as Presidential

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo

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.’”

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