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Lessons learned, Santorum on comeback trail

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The skepticism about Rick Santorum’s decision to run for president emanated from deep inside his old inner circle, among his closest friends.

He was, after all, not even five years removed from a crushing 18-percentage-point Senate reelection defeat. That, and dismal numbers in all the presidential polls, seemed to signal an end to his political career.

None of Santorum’s former Senate colleagues endorsed him. And, most important, he had seven children at home, including a very sick one who needed him in ways that argued against running for president.

When he had lunch last summer with his friend and ex-colleague Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the former Senate majority leader reminded Santorum that he was finally making some much-needed money and was building a successful work life away from politics.

“He was going to put all that on hold,” said Lott, recalling his warning that a presidential run might be folly given Santorum’s personal circumstances and his prospects of becoming the nominee. “It was going to be an uphill battle,” said Lott, who has endorsed Mitt Romney.

But just as he had done so often before, Santorum ignored the skeptics.

In the passionate, determined way that has emerged as both a great asset and a great vulnerability, the former senator from Pennsylvania dove in, spending months in Iowa as an afterthought, at the bottom of most opinion polls, only to sling to the front in the past two weeks.

Santorum’s resurrection is a story about the power and limits of his rare combination of ideological clarity on social issues, willingness to tweak the GOP orthodoxy on economic issues and eagerness for political confrontation. It is the same mix that has brought Santorum unexpected inspirational victories as well as heart-rending setbacks.

On deeply personal issues, Santorum has a tendency “to let emotion get the better of him,” said former senator John Sununu (R-N.H.). “There’s a real sincerity there, which made it easy to work with him. That kind of sincerity is why he caught up in Iowa,” said Sununu, who has not endorsed anyone.

When Gary Bauer, the conservative activist and chairman of the Campaign for Working Families, endorsed Santorum on Sunday, he said in a news release that the former senator embodies “the Reagan-inspired conservatism that unites the GOP.”

At the same time, Santorum was attracting legions of antagonists at rallies in New Hampshire who, in addition to not sharing his socially conservative vision of America, confronted him on it. The irony, of course, is that he is drawing huge crowds.

Predicting the Santorum bubble, which seemed improbable five weeks ago, would have been impossible five years ago, after Pennsylvania voters booted out the two-term senator.

“He started off down 15 points, and by the end it was a Kabuki dance,” said Christopher Nicholas, a Republican consultant in Pennsylvania. A Quinnipiac Poll in April 2005 showed that he trailed now-Sen. Robert Casey (D) by 14 percentage points, before Casey entered the race.

The fall of 2006 was not a good time to be a Republican. But it seemed particularly bad for Santorum. The Bush White House’s popularity had cratered amid the struggles in Iraq and the fallout of the poor federal rescue effort that followed Hurricane Katrina.

Still, Santorum’s troubles seemed mostly of his own making.

He didn’t do himself any favors by attaching himself to the hip of the Bush White House, a move strategically intended to boost his own presidential prospects.

Both publicly and privately, he scolded those Republicans who strayed from the White House line. One Republican strategist, discussing a closed-door meeting on the condition of anonymity, recalled a debate when Senate Republicans were divided on the farm bill. San­torum started yelling about party unity, with a microphone in front of him. As Santorum finished, then-Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) quipped: “Would somebody please turn up his microphone? I couldn’t hear him.”

Strategists in both parties said Santorum’s attachment to the Bush brand was fatal.

“Everything had to do with Bush, Bush, Bush, and by then Santorum equaled Bush in Pennsylvania,” said Neil Oxman, the Democratic consultant who led then-Gov. Ed Rendell’s successful 2006 reelection campaign.

Santorum’s recovery, like his previous success, has been based on small shifts in tone on economic and fiscal issues, set against the bedrock clarity of his position on social issues.

In a GOP field that talks about wealth largely to defend it and government largely to bash it, Santorum is something of an anomaly, but it may have been a lesson learned the hard way in Pennsylvania. Santorum calls himself a “full-spectrum” conservative, but also tries not to be limited by his conservatism.

“We as Republicans have to look at those who are not doing well in our society,” he told supporters Tuesday, when he unexpectedly came close to winning the Iowa caucuses.

A key Santorum talking point is that he can win support from blue-collar regions, based on his history and on the strength of his proposal to impose a zero tax rate on the manufacturing sector.

“It’ll pass tomorrow. It would pass tomorrow. Why? Because industrial-state Democrats want those jobs, and they know if we put a pro-manufacturing jobs plan on the table it will pass overnight,” Santorum said during an October debate.

Even though it has helped him present a new face in Iowa and New Hampshire, this is not an entirely new message for Santorum.

After riding the Republican wave to win his first Senate term in 1994, Santorum went on in his reelection bid to face an underfunded Democratic congressman. He presented himself as a compassionate conservative, trumpeting tax policies that would help poor people and allow federal funds to flow to churches in low-income neighborhoods. He was reelected with almost 53 percent of the vote.

That message resonated in Bucks County, the consummate swing-voter suburb just north of Philadelphia. The county has split its vote for its congressman almost evenly since 1978, favoring the GOP candidate nine times and the Democrat eight times. In 2000, Santorum swept Bucks County with 57 percent of the vote.

Six years later, he had changed. He was more focused on social issues and was defending the Bush record.

“His issue cluster got to be much more on social values than on economic issues,” said Nicholas, now political director of the Pennsylvania Business Council.

His second term, during which he served as the No. 3 Republican leader, became increasingly focused on social-values issues, such as fighting Democratic filibusters of GOP judicial nominees and opposition to same-sex marriage.

When he faced the voters again in 2006, he could muster only 41.5 percent in Bucks County.

His current success on the GOP campaign trail among working-class conservatives appears to be based almost exclusively on their draw to his religious conservatism, but San­torum understands the power of marrying that message with economic populism.

“If we have someone who can go out to western Pennsylvania and Ohio and Michigan and Indiana and Wisconsin and Iowa and Missouri and appeal to the voters that have been left behind by a Democratic Party that wants to make them dependent instead of valuing their work, we will win this election,” he said.

Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

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