Rick Santorum, agitator

at 01:00 PM ET, 06/06/2011


Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum is running for president. (Photo by Steve Pope/Getty Images)
Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum’s official entry into the presidential race on Monday was largely greeted with a yawn by the political community.

Santorum, is, after all, coming off of an 18-point drubbing in his 2006 re-election race and has struggled in the early days of the 2012 campaign to emerge as the preferred candidate for social conservatives.

Those who dismiss Santorum as a factor in the race are making a mistake, however. Every presidential race is like a feature-length film that includes the major actors and the bit players. And so, Santorum has a role to play. That role? Agitator.

Throughout his political career, Santorum has been a somewhat unique figure on the national stage in that he isn’t afraid to throw a political punch.

It’s a trait that helped him rise in Republican leadership circles — he finished his political career as Senate Republican Conference Chairman, the fourth ranking GOP senator — and what turned him into a national icon of the social conservative movement in the 1990s and 2000s.

(That same junkyard dog trait also sowed the seeds of his 2006 defeat at the hands of Sen. Bob Casey Jr. as well as Santorum found himself well to the ideological right of his Pennsylvania constituents.)

Santorum has already shown his feisty side in the run-up to this campaign, regularly going after his better known rivals.

To wit:

* On Mitt Romney: “The issues, unfortunately, don’t line up particularly well for Governor Romney this time, particularly with health care being front and center on the stage.”

* On Mike Huckabee: “On national security, cultural, economic, fiscal, etc. and Gov. Huckabee doesn’t have a record on national security so what I’m saying is for someone who’s thinking about running for president I’m a much more known quantity and someone who is consistent.”

* On Mitch Daniels: “I think it shows there are some people who are willing to stand up and fight for the family and others who would rather, to use the comment of one potential candidate, call a truce on these things. A truce in this case means ceding ground to the other side.”

Now that he is in the race, Santorum isn’t likely to let up on his critique of his rivals; his campaign slogan, unveiled this morning in Somerset, Pennsylvania is “the courage to fight for America”-- an indication of where he’s headed message-wise.

Santorum’s pugilistic rhetorical approach is designed to allow him to “punch up” — meaning that by taking shots at his better known rivals he can inject himself into debates and conversations where he might not otherwise be.

It’s a sound strategy for someone who is clearly seen as a second-tier figure in the race. It also poses potential danger for the people at whom Santorum is swinging.

Typically, a better known politician would never get caught punching down, validating a little-regarded rival by engaging in any sort of extended back and forth.

But, Santorum has shown throughout his career that he is not simply persistent in his critiques but also has a unique ability to get under the skins of the people to whom he trains his verbal jabs.

The two most likely recipients of Santorum’s attacks will be Romney, the race’s frontrunner, who the former Pennsylvania senator has already hammered over the Massachusetts health care law and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman who not only served in the Obama Administration as ambassador to China but also has staked out relatively moderate ground on the issue of civil unions.

The first showdown will likely come a week from today in New Hampshire as the announced candidates — so, no Huntsman — gather for a presidential debate.

Expect Santorum to come out aggressively when given the chance. How Romney reacts — not just next Monday but throughout the campaign — will be telling.

 
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