Santorum Eyes Leader’s Post, White House

Posted September 7, 2004 at 6:36pm

NEW YORK — At a reception for Jewish Republicans last week, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) delivered a rousing address, telling attendees that President Bush deserves to be re-elected and prompting the crowd to break into shouts of “Four more years.”

But Santorum did not get caught up in the moment, keeping his remarks brief, mindful of the queue of GOP Senators off stage waiting to address the crowd themselves.

“If I want to stay in leadership, I noticed that about half of my colleagues are here, so instead of making them wait and threatening my future in the United States Senate and leadership position, I want to thank all of my friends from Pennsylvania,” Santorum quipped as he wrapped up his remarks and bounded off stage to head to another Republican National Convention event.

It was a rather revealing and frank comment from the Pennsylvania Senator who must decide soon if he is going to run for Republican leader in 2006, lay the groundwork for a presidential bid in 2008, or perhaps do both. Republican Conference rules require Santorum to vacate his current job as Conference chairman in two years, a perch he has used since 2001 to help craft his party’s message and influence the chamber’s legislative agenda.

Fork in the Road

Santorum acknowledged he is approaching a professional crossroads and that he will have to make a life-shaping decision that will force him to weigh any national ambitions against his Senate leadership objectives, all the while gearing up for his own re-election bid in 2006.

“I can’t say I never talk about it, because everybody asks me, not because I am sitting here doing any kind of real essential planning,” said Santorum, speaking about a possible presidential bid in an interview last week. “Ultimately, I look at it as a decision that I have to, first, make it through an election cycle and beyond that, how can I best serve the people of Pennsylvania and my country?”

“Obviously, with the leader’s race in ’06, I have got to make the decision on that, too,” Santorum would later add.

The Pennsylvanian is one of several Republicans mentioned as possible successors to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.), who has vowed to retire at the end of the 109th Congress. Other Republicans reportedly interested in succeeding Frist include National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.), Sen. Chuck Hagel (Neb.), Republican Policy Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.), former GOP leader Trent Lott (Miss.) and Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

Having built his career on long-shot wins on the campaign trail and in the halls of Congress, it should be no surprise that Santorum is looking at both the leader’s post and the White House.

“We think that he will be one of our strong leaders for the next couple of decades in the Senate, unless he runs for president,” said Jim Backlin, vice president of legislative affairs for the Christian Coalition of America.

One fact appears certain: Santorum is planning to seek a third term in the Senate, regardless of whether he decides to run for Republican leader or president.

“I am very, very comfortable looking at ’06 and just trying to go to the people of Pennsylvania and say, ‘I would like another opportunity because I think I am making a contribution to the state,’” he said. “I think I can do more.”

‘I Am Not Going to Sell My Soul’

Since being elected to the House 14 years ago and the Senate a mere four years later, Santorum has carved out a niche in Congress as a champion of socially conservative issues while at the same time serving as a key GOP contact to deep-pocketed K Street lobbyists.

He holds regular meetings with these powerful lobbyists and does not deny leaning on them to make more Republican hires — a critical component that he said is necessary to help advance the Republican agenda in Congress.

“I have said many times, and I get criticized for it, that it is important to have a Republican voice in those offices,” Santorum said. “If you don’t, then our message never gets communicated to the people in those organizations … and they get spin from people who by and large don’t share the same wants and desires of maybe their own clients.”

Many Washington lobbyists compare Santorum to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), whose potent political network was built, in part, with the help of his K Street allies and contacts.

“You talk to all sorts of business lobbyists, who say ‘I’ve talked to Rick Santorum, or his staff or I had a meeting with him,’” said David Rehr, president of the National Beer Wholesalers Association. “The guy is everywhere.”

And Santorum makes sure that “everywhere” includes his home about an hour outside the Beltway in a Northern Virginia suburb. He describes himself as a devout family man, and notes that any decision about his political future will be shaped largely by what’s best for his wife and children.

“I think I am different than probably most guys in this game,” he said. “Not too many have six little kids and go home every night. I want to continue to go home every night.

“I am not going to sell my soul for any job,” he added.

His strong bond to K Street could prove invaluable in a few years should he seek the leader’s job or the White House. These lobbyists play influential roles in leadership races and Congressional campaigns, offering strategic advice and, of course, money.

To achieve any of his goals, Santorum is going to have to raise a substantial sum of money — upwards of $20 million for his own re-election and millions more thereafter should he set up an exploratory committee to look into a White House campaign. As of June 30, Santorum had more than $1.1 million in his personal campaign account, according to a review of his Federal Election Commission records.

In the near term, to help gain valuable chits and help his fellow Republicans in 2004, Santorum is using his political action committee to contribute to Senate incumbents and challengers, as well as a handful of House candidates. For example, in the six-month period spanning from January through June, he donated more than $90,000 from his PAC to Republican candidates.

Same-Sex Marriage

In some Democratic circles, simply uttering Santorum’s name elicits snarling reactions from critics who complain about his hard-charging, sharp-edged nature. Former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) once quipped that the Pennsylvanian’s last name was Latin for a seven-letter profanity. (The hard feelings that existed between the two men have since dissipated, as witnessed during a recent encounter between them in the Senate.)

Still, even some people in his own party express disdain for the Pennsylvania Senator for his fervent stand on social issues such as abortion and, most recently, his very public support for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

The gay and lesbian GOP advocacy group, the Log Cabin Republicans, began running a commercial last week that condemned Republicans who advocate socially conservative causes such as imposing a federal ban on gay marriage. Among the faces the group flashed across the screen as examples of Republicans who they charge are dividing the party were Pat Buchanan, Jerry Falwell and Santorum.

“I think that Rick Santorum is the face of exclusion and intolerance,” Chris Barron, political director for the Log Cabin Republicans, said in an interview. “I think that if we are going to maintain our status as the majority party in this country then we can’t be led by folks like Rick Santorum.”

As for how he shapes his own policy decisions, Santorum suggested people take a look at the teachings of the Catholic Church.

“If you want to know how Rick Santorum is going to look at things, a good first place to start would be looking at his faith and how he viewed these things,” said Santorum. “That doesn’t mean that is where I am going to end up because a lot of things … with respect to the Catholic faith you have the ability to use prudential judgments.”

The Pennsylvania Senator explains that he finds it “remarkable” when public officials proclaim they will not allow their religious beliefs to help shape their opinions on matters of public policy.

“My response is, ‘What does influence you?’” he stated. “Is it whatever the public wants? Is it just majority rules? Is it just materialism? Is it completely secular? What sort of moral beliefs?”

He added, “We have this great lie we try to tell ourselves that there is moral neutrality. There is no such thing.”

Political Passion

Santorum scoffs at suggestions that some of his colleagues on the other side of the aisle are privately critical of his legislative style. Several describe the Pennsylvanian as arrogant and brash. But Santorum ticked off a list of Democrats in the chamber whom he has a good relationship with, including Sens. John Breaux (La.), Kent Conrad (N.D.), Joe Lieberman (Conn.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.).

“On a personal level, I find it easy to talk to Kent Conrad and joke around with him and then go on the floor and hammer away at him and him hammer back,” Santorum said. “You know what, that is OK. I accept the fact that he wants to get something accomplished and I want to get something different accomplished.”

He added, “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be pleasant to each other. I don’t think I am personally nasty to anybody.”

While his detractors criticize Santorum for his bluntness, his allies said it was one of the qualities they admire most about him.

“He is a very passionate person,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.). “If he believes in something, you better get out of his way because he truly believes in it.”

There are two high-profile examples this year in which Santorum stood behind a candidate and later an issue that, taken together, present a rather odd couple. Santorum publicly declared his support for the re-election of centrist Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), even though his legislative goals were more in line with those of Specter’s primary challenger, Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.). While Specter favors abortion rights, for example, Santorum and Toomey are ardent abortion rights opponents.

Santorum’s decision to back Specter put him at odds with many conservatives, who wondered if being in Washington for 14 years was beginning to soften his political views.

But Santorum said he doesn’t regret backing Specter, and noted his Pennsylvania colleague had the best chance of winning the general election and had been supportive of both him and the national Republican leadership when called upon to do so.

“Arlen understands the concept of team,” Santorum said. “He understands the concept of, sometimes you have got to give up part of what you believe is right. From my perspective, this was not a hard call.”

Later, Santorum would become one of the public faces pushing for the Senate to approve a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage that further divided an already fractured Republican Party.

“He is hardball all the way,” said a senior Republican centrist staffer. “But at the same time he did help Specter, and Specter is mindful of that.”

Fourth Estate

Santorum admits having a testy relationship with the news media, and is still simmering from a dust-up with an Associated Press reporter in April 2003. When speaking about the Supreme Court’s review of the Texas anti-sodomy law, Santorum said, “If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything.”

The media seized upon the quote and forced Santorum to issue a detailed statement explaining that he said it in the context of the court case.

“When discussing the pending Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas, my comments were specific to the right to privacy and the broader implications of a ruling on other state privacy laws,” he said in a statement at the time. “In the interview, I expressed the same concern as many constitutional scholars, and discussed arguments put forward by the state of Texas, as well as Supreme Court justices. If such a law restricting personal conduct is held unconstitutional, so could other existing state laws.”

More than one year after that interview, he noted that he saw the quote brandished anew just the other day.

“I say enough to get me in trouble,” said Santorum. “I don’t need people making things up that I say to get me in trouble.”

But Santorum has appeared to move beyond this controversy, receiving celebrity treatment from the GOP delegates both at the Jewish event and in the lobby of another New York hotel last week.

“I think he could have a shot at doing anything he wants to do,” said Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), a former Democrat with centrist views. “What you see with Rick, and what his colleagues appreciate, is that he is thoughtful.

“He brings a perspective I don’t always agree with and I am not going to agree with Rick on every issue, but I appreciate his thoughtfulness and integrity,” Coleman added.