Rick Santorum, in movie exec mode, considers his options for 2016

We open in a high-ceilinged mansion. A movie producer — a Bill Pullman type — talks to a crowd beside a grand piano. They munch on bacon-wrapped hors d’oeuvres; he fills them in on his latest projects.

“It’s like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ meets ‘A Christmas Carol,’ set in Victorian England,” he says. “The Western is great, it’s like ‘Shane,’ but it might be the only Western where the bad guy becomes a good guy.”

The producer doesn’t touch the finger food. He starred in a film recently, and most of his screen time included him noshing. He’s thinking about reprising the role in a couple of years but doesn’t want to be thought of as a pig.

The camera zooms out, revealing signs for conservative congressional candidate Matt Schultz hanging by the fireplace. Suddenly you realize this isn’t a Hollywood whoop-de-do. We’re in Des Moines for a fundraiser. The movie producer is former senator Rick Santorum, chief executive of EchoLight Studios and star of A.J. Schnack’s documentary “Caucus,” about the 2012 elections, and a man already laying the groundwork for another uphill run in 2016. This time, the culture warrior known best for his stances on same-sex marriage and a last name children shouldn’t Google is trying to take on a softer tone and appeal more to blue-collar Republicans.

It’s like “The Passion of the Christ” meets Bruce Springsteen meets “Election.”

History says that Rick Santorum should be the next Republican nominee for president. Republicans are wont to nominate the guy who came in second the last time around (see: Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney). Having won 11 states in 2012, Santorum should be the front-runner.

The problem for him is that no one believes this will be the case.

“This has happened to me every single race I’ve run,” Santorum says about his underdog status in a Des Moines coffee shop. His hair has grayed and his belly shrunk a bit since 2012. “I would have been surprised had it been otherwise this time around.”

‘A fight on the right’

He was certainly written off in a similar fashion in 2012. Just months before the Iowa caucus — the first major electoral event of the season — Santorum was polling in the single digits. But in what ended up being one of the more compelling story lines of the cycle, Santorum won the state in a squeaker. Sixteen days after Mitt Romney was said to have captured the state by eight votes, the state Republican Party announced that Santorum had in fact won by 34 votes. The victory changed Santorum’s trajectory from a nobody to an almost somebody.

Achieving even that type of success might be more difficult this time around.

“There’s going to be a fight on the right to see who will be the Christian conservative choice of 2016,” says Jamie Johnson, a former Santorum campaign staffer. “I’ve never seen the stars aligned like this before in Iowa, with so many possibilities. I love Rick Santorum, and I wish him the best, but this is a new day.”

It’s a day when GOP Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Rand Paul (Ky.) are rock stars and when former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee could jump in and steal a lot of the evangelical support. And that’s just the fight for the right flank of the party. Who knows whether Jeb Bush or Chris Christie will end up eating away at the pie? This means that even some of Santorum’s most avid supporters last time around can’t promise to be there for him going forward. Ask Chuck Laudner, an Iowa strategist who logged thousands of miles in his pickup truck, working as just one of seven people on the Santorum campaign stationed in Iowa.

“Put it this way,” he said when asked about whether he plans on taking the truck out again in 2016. “Rick’s got dibs. But I don’t expect that you can re-create the 2012 caucus and re-create that dynamic. I doubt that anybody is going to be riding in that truck except me.”

Updating the script

The first question, of course, is whether he will run. Who would want to put their nine-person family through the wringer once again, all for the chance of going up against an expanded list of conservative candidates? If he were to do so, and then lose Iowa, that would almost certainly be the nail in his political coffin.

Santorum is quick to admit that the last go-round “took a toll” on the family. His wife, Karen, is a very private person, he says, and it’s hard to be a dad to seven kids while also spending time in all 99 counties in the Hawkeye State. He remembers having to sit down with his children and talk with them about all the negative things said about him on social media and the Internet. (When LGBT rights activist Dan Savage took offense to Santorum’s views on homosexuality, he held a contest in 2003 to create a new definition for the then-senator’s last name. The winning entry wasn’t pretty.) He remembers having to suspend the campaign when his daughter, Bella, who suffers from a rare genetic disorder, was hospitalized, and he remembers the criticism he got from those who thought he was using her illness for sympathy votes.

“Just look at the facts,” he says. “During the campaign, we really downplayed Bella. She didn’t come out to campaign events. We saw what the other side did to Sarah Palin’s son, so we weren’t going to put Bella through that.”

Perhaps this is why he’s so coy when asked whetherhe’s running for president.

“I’m in Iowa,” he says. “I’m traveling around the country giving speeches. I’m writing a book. I’m doing everything that’s necessary to be in position to make a decision.”

But he’s also put himself in the position to make a bunch more money. Coming in second in 2012 meant he could give speeches for an average of about $40,000 to $50,000 per gig. Matt Beynon, who has worked for Santorum in various capacities for years, says that before 2012 he was “making just a small fraction of that.”

By being a potential contender, he gets to keep his speaking fees high and can bring attention to his EchoLight Studios, which makes faith-based movies.

“Everybody has a script, everybody has an idea, everybody wants to make a movie,” Santorum humblebrags about the business like a seasoned Hollywood pro (his company is actually based in Dallas). “I’ve never felt so popular.”

But when not turning down slasher-film pitches (“The guy said, ‘I can see why you wouldn’t want to do it, but there’s a deep spirituality to this movie’ ”), Santorum doesn’t mind talking about how he’d do things differently in a future campaign.

“The last time I ran, there was a pretty common caricature that was made,” he says. “I had to do some things that reinforced that caricature; I get that. It was a necessity for me to let people know my record on a lot of issues that were more controversial. Now I don’t have to talk about my record; everyone knows where I am on those issues.”

In the past, Santorum has gotten in hot water for, say, comparing homosexuality to bestiality, or calling contraception “a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” He’s staunchly antiabortion and made headlines in 2005 when he led the charge for state intervention to keep Terri Schiavo alive. He’s hoping not to talk about these things so much anymore.

“Clearly, the culture has changed,” he says. “That’s why I talk about those things differently.” Or, sometimes, he doesn’t talk about them at all. His recent speeches have been more about reaching out to working-class stiffs than about the culture wars. He even has a book scheduled to come out this month, titled “Blue Collar Conservatives.”

It doesn’t mean he’s changed his mind about “controversial” ideas. “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear,” he says.

His biggest hurdle, however, might not be about changing the message so much as raising the cash. In 2012, Romney outspent Santorum by about 5 to 1. Santorum says he’s happy with how many more doors seem to be open to him this time around, but just last week four potential Republican contenders — Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Chris Christie and Scott Walker — headed to Las Vegas to try to get support from mega-donor Sheldon Adelson. Santorum was not on that list.

Instead, Santorum spent his time keeping his contacts in Iowa warm. He had lunch with a group of his political strategists and made the rounds on various television and radio programs to keep his name talked up around the water cooler. He promised to help raise cash for Schultz’s congressional campaign, giving him a strong ally if Schultz pulls off a victory.

“It seems like it starts earlier each time,” Iowa’s Republican governor, Terry Branstad, says when asked about Santorum’s visit. “You have people out there now that are testing the waters, but these days I don’t probably ever think there’s such thing as too early. Just because he won it last time doesn’t mean he will again.”

Calling it a wrap

We end with Santorum talking about having to put down his dog, a 12-year-old German shepherd named Schatzi. Before Santorum heads into a radio interview, having just chatted on the phone with one of his daughters, he turns to a reporter to talk about what’s going on back home. Schatzi’s “never been tied up,” he says, looking at his shoes. “She just wanders and is in the street all the time now. . . . We don’t want her around if her life is going to be miserable, you know?”

We’ll go with a long close-up shot of Santorum, talking about the dog in such a way that it seems as if he’s talking about something else: about knowing when to call it quits.

“I think we’re down to just one in the family who isn’t ready to let go,” he says.

Ben Terris is a writer in the Washington Post's Style section with a focus on national politics.
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