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Uneven as a Senator, Santorum Not Perceived as Presidential

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo

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.

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