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Rick Santorum flies the friendly skies, with reporters

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ABOARD US AIRWAYS EXPRESS FLIGHT 3442 -- This is what it’s like to be the other Rick running for president:

Philip Rucker

You carry your own bags aboard a regional jet headed for New Hampshire. Even at Washington’s Reagan National Airport, nobody recognizes you, save for the gaggle of reporters getting on same flight. You end up in Seat 2D – stuck between this reporter and CNN’s Peter Hamby. “Trapped!,” you tweet. “Help!!”

You prepare for the next day’s debate by reading about how Texas Gov. Rick Perry is preparing for it: Mock debates with a Mitt Romney impersonator, boning up on the issues, getting more sleep.

So what is Rick Santorum doing to prepare?

“Candidly?” he says, looking up from his New York Times. “Nothing.”

Mock rehearsals?

“I’ve never done one in my entire political career.”

Dreaming up new zingers?

“I try not to script it at all.”

Huddling with his consultants and aides?

“I don’t have consultants… I travel by myself. I like it that way. I’m not afraid of reporters. I should be, but I’m not.”

So it goes to be running at the bottom of the big pack of Republicans vying for the 2012 presidential nomination. Nearly everyone else in the race has had his or her moment, but not Santorum.

Not yet, at least.

“People don’t know who I am, they don’t know my record, they don’t know anything,” Santorum said, adding that he is hoping that changes fast. “Every debate is a chance for me to get people paying a little bit more attention.”

Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, said he is prepared to attack former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney on his state health-care law if he is given the opportunity in Tuesday’s Washington Post-Bloomberg debate, to be held at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

“The frustrating part of the previous debates for me is that whoever the top contender was with Romney – whether it was [former Minnesota governor Tim] Pawlenty or [Rep. Michele] Bachmann or Perry – always had the opportunity to spar with Romney and nobody else really has. I really haven’t had a chance unless I sort of butted in,” Santorum said.

Santorum acknowledged that he won’t post a particularly impressive fundraising total for the third quarter, but said the state of his campaign is healthy. His online donations grew in late September, following what critics considered strong performances in a trio of debates, and the campaign is “cash-positive.”

It helps that he has a small staff. The only person accompanying him on Monday morning’s flight to New Hampshire was his son, John, an 18-year-old who deferred college for a year to help his dad’s campaign.

“He’s helping in two ways,” Santorum said. “He’s an unpaid free staffer for us – it’s sort of like the family farm – and he’s not costing me any tuition.”

Santorum said he flies commercial everywhere. Told that Romney, too, flies commercial (and tweets pictures of himself on Southwest Airlines), Santorum said: “He flies Southwest?”

“You’ll find I’m a man of the people,” Santorum said, noting that his first class seat was a free upgrade thanks to his silver status with Star Alliance. “I’ll show you my frequent flier miles. That’s why I’m sitting up here, because I have elevated status on all of these airlines.”

A slew of DC media types filed past as they boarded – Byron York of The Washington Examiner, Peter Hamby of CNN, David Chalian of PBS, Sam Stein of The Huffington Post, Marcus Brauchli of The Washington Post, giving Santorum perhaps the biggest national media exposure of his campaign.

As the plane cruised on a clear-skied morning above Wilmington, Del., a flight attendant took Santorum’s drink order. He asked for a cranberry juice, but when the attendant warned him it was “loaded up with sugar,” Santorum made the healthy choice and ordered a Diet Sprite.

When this reporter complimented his brown leather cowboy boots, Santorum said: “I wear these boots everywhere – formal and casual. I’ll wear them in tomorrow’s debate.”

Once the plane touched down in Manchester, Santorum grabbed his briefcase and plastic Jos A. Bank garment bag carrying his suit for Tuesday’s debate.

“I like to pack light,” he said, noting that campaign life is hardly a grind for him. “I signed up for this. It’s not like it’s a hard life. It’s long days, but I get a chance to see people and talk to them and share the ideas I care about and what I think is best for the country. It’s not a grind, it’s a privilege.”

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