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Right Turn
Posted at 08:15 AM ET, 08/17/2011

Path to the nomination: Rick Santorum

The most ignored man in the presidential race isn’t Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), whose rabid followers have elevated a marginal figure with untenable positions to the front pages of newspapers. The figure most egregiously ignored, I would suggest, is former senator Rick Santorum. After driving himself and seven kids back from Iowa ( “If we had the dog it would have been more stops,” he joked) he agreed to a far-ranging phone interview yesterday afternoon. He made a forceful case for himself and very aptly took on his competitors, especially the newest entrant, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose remarks about the Fed chairman Santorum called “shockingly maladroit.” He also became the first candidate to call for Perry to apologize.

Santorum said “we obviously wanted to win” the Ames straw poll, but considering “one of the people ahead of me has been running for president for two years, another for five years and they spent in excess of a million dollars, I feel we did ok.” His strong finish has had an impact on his candidacy, he told me. “The highest response is from the four state s I’ve spent the most time in — Iowa, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and New Hampshire.” In those states he’s encouraged by a noticeable uptick in calls to his campaign, fundraising and volunteers. He said of those states, “South Carolina has been the biggest reaction.” He’s planning additional fundraising in the weeks again. He said, “If I can stick around, and I think I can because we have a very grass-roots campaign — we’re not taking private jets around,” then he sees an opportunity to compete with the better-funded candidates in debates.

Santorum is nothing if not fearless. “My boots aren’t shaking,” he said in reference to those ahead of him in the race. He very passionately took on Perry for his comments on Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. “I am not in agreement with Ben Bernanke,” he began. “But having a presidential candidate calling [a policy disagreement] treason is shockingly maladroit. Maybe he can get away with that in Austin, but we’re not in Austin anymore. Bernanke has made some bad decisions but these are public policy decisions. . . . To say that is treasonous is what gets you into John Conyers language,” he said referring to the Michigan congressman who threatened to impeach President George W. Bush. “I reject that. He should take two steps back and say it was a mistake. He should apologize.”

He also had critical words for Perry and others who have elevated the 10th Amendment to a sort of cult. He told me, “Like I said in the debate, this is the 10th Amendment run amok.” He pointed to a list of items on which states aren’t or shouldn’t be allowed to act as they please. “Rick Perry can talk about secession . . . that’s not what the 10th Amendment says,” he told me. He reiterated that the 10th Amendment reserves some rights to the states but warned that they cannot violate “what is clearly laid out in the Constitution” and should not be violating “fundamental values.”

Most voters are unfamiliar with Santorum’s record. During our conversation he made the case that he was ahead of the curve on both entitlement reform and Iran sanctions (over the protests of the Bush administration, he recalled). On Iran, he is especially harsh in his condemnation of what he saw as efforts to ignore or lie about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. “They ostensibly didn’t want George W. Bush to act on” available intelligence,” he argued. Concern about what he perceived as the “gathering storm of the 21st century” animated his final years in the Senate and his work since, and remains, he said, “a passion of mine.” His concern is “that the GOP has learned the wrong lesson and could go ‘Ron Paul’ ” on national security issues. He expressed frustration that there has been “no conversation about this” in the race.

He also argued, “I will match my record in the U.S. Senate with anybody.” He embraces his reputation as a staunch conservative, and in in contrast to Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) he contended that he was “doing big stuff.” His Web site points to work on welfare reform, laws against partial-birth abortion, reinvigoration of our military, spending controls, Iran and autism research.

“What I always did in any legislation was to find out what the other side wants.” If you fail to do that, “you can’t get anything done,” he pointed out. He explained, with only a hint of exasperation, that if you don’t give the other side anything, you won’t reach a deal. “I’ve walked away many times,” he explained, but that didn’t mean he was not willing to make deals. He brought up the show of hands on getting a ratio of 10 -to-1 cuts to tax hikes from the last debate. He explained, “I raised my hand because I understood the ‘1’ to be tax increases on the wealthy. But if we are talking about removing energy subsidies, then I’m for the ‘1.’ If we are talking about lowering rates, I’m a ‘yes,’ ” even if a more effective and pro-growth tax code raises more revenue.

When recollecting his career, he said, “One of the things I was successful in doing in the U.S. Senate was pretty consistently getting involved in issues that span party lines.” He pointed to work he did on autism, global AIDS, debt relief and Iran. He described the difficult task of bringing together multiple constituencies with very different theories about autism. He called it “one of the most difficult and emotional” things in working with “parents who were fried” from the stress of coping with autism. Obtaining National Institutes of Health funding for autism was one of the things he told me he is most proud of in his Senate career.

Perhaps the Republican Party has changed so much in the last few years and the style of unbridled opposition has become so entrenched that Santorum, a man painted as a rigid conservative, comes across as downright reasonable and pragmatic in his pursuit of conservative goals. He may cause his competitors fits in the upcoming debates by attacking their positions and style from the right. And while he remains a long shot to win the race, he actually has something to teach the party, the conservative punditocracy and his competitors about how a conservative can make progress and not simply mouth talk-show rhetoric. It’s not every candidate who has something to say that is worth listening to.

By  |  08:15 AM ET, 08/17/2011

Categories:  2012 campaign

 
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