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Paths of surging Santorum, fading Gingrich again cross

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In 1990, when Rick Santorum was a political novice running a long-shot bid for Congress, he would drive around western Pennsylvania listening to the political preachings and teachings of a leader he barely knew, a congressman from Georgia named Newt Gingrich.

That fall, in an otherwise dispiriting midterm election for the GOP, Santorum shocked a seven-term Democratic incumbent in a campaign that became a model for Republicans over the next two cycles.

Four years later, Gingrich used the same strategy to engineer a 54-seat pickup in the House and give Republicans their first House majority in 40 years.

For movement conservatives anxious about Mitt Romney’s conservative credentials and still hoping to put one of their own in the Oval Office, the choice is an increasingly simple one: Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich, two close friends from the original Republican revolution.

Gingrich and Santorum were central players in what has come to be known as the Gingrich revolution, and both are using the same confrontational tactics in the current campaign for president, hoping to appeal to conservatives hungry for an alternative to Romney. A few weeks ago, Gingrich was viewed as the greatest threat on Romney’s right flank, but his standing wilted under a barrage of negative advertising. Santorum came from nowhere in Iowa to finish in a virtual tie with Romney on Tuesday, setting himself up as the latest option for the anti-Romney bloc.

As attention shifts to New Hampshire, the question is whether Santorum and Gingrich’s long friendship will help or harm each of them going forward. Will they train their fire on each other or combine their attacks on Romney?

Their fortunes have already been closely linked. One key factor in Santorum’s rise in Iowa was Gingrich’s implosion amid the flurry of negative ads from allies of front-runner Romney. Many of the most conservative voters fled the former speaker into the arms of Santorum, leaving Gingrich in a disappointing fourth place in Tuesday’s caucuses. Still, their combined totals outpaced the number of votes Romney received.

As the campaign heads into more complicated terrain, the teacher-pupil relationship could be tested and fray. Or they may decide, as in the past, to join forces to make an ideological point.

The fading Gingrich this week branded Romney “a liar.” If Gingrich chooses to play the role of conservative pit bull, that could allow San­torum to stay above the fray and consolidate conservative voters while appearing to be the most positive of the candidates.

Perhaps foreshadowing such an effort, Gingrich’s concession speech Tuesday night offered laurels for Santorum while casting a thinly veiled jab at Romney. “I want to take just a minute and congratulate a good friend of ours, Rick Santorum,” Gingrich said. “He waged a great, positive campaign. And I admire the courage and the way he focused, and I admire how positive he was. I wish I could say that for all candidates.”

For both men, this campaign has been a political revival. Both were left for dead politically long ago because their aggressive styles eventually wore thin. Both were ousted from Congress.

Santorum, now 53, first met Gingrich, now 68, in Santorum’s first race ever, the 1990 campaign. A lawyer at a white-shoe firm in Pittsburgh, Santorum jumped into the race with little support from local party leaders or those in Washington. Gingrich, the House minority whip, had built an aggressive political operation outside the main establishment structure, called GOPAC. The group sent its tapes to Santorum and offered other support, propelling him to a key victory.

Gingrich steered Santorum onto the prestigious House Ways and Means Committee, which gave Santorum the opportunity to draft the GOP’s proposal for welfare reform. Always most comfortable as an agitator, Santorum joined with six other young Republicans to expose a scandal in the House bank, in which lawmakers were allowed to overdraw from their accounts without penalty. Along with another key Gingrich disciple — Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), almost two decades before he became speaker — San­torum and the rest of the “Gang of Seven” pushed the scandal into the political spotlight.

As Gingrich and Boehner drew up the 1994 “Contract With America,” Santorum challenged Sen. Harris Wofford (D). Defying critics who said he was too young, too brash and too conservative for a centrist state like Pennsylvania, Santorum narrowly won. “If you took ‘no’ out of the English language, he would be speechless,” Wofford said of his opponent during a debate.

While Gingrich became the face of the hard-charging House, Santorum epitomized a new guard in the Senate. He was both more conservative and more partisan than his peers, part of the first wave of former House members from both parties who would bring their sharper tongues and elbows to a relatively staid Senate that has now become a bickering legislative wasteland.

“He practiced the politics of passion,” said Eric Ueland, a former Senate leadership aide in the 1990s and early 2000s. “He was part of a generational change in the Senate Republican Conference. The heart of the party moved to a more reflective set of interests.” The Pennsylvanian “made colleagues uncomfortable in the Senate when he first got there,” Ueland said, but the conference moved in his direction and eventually awarded him with the No. 3 leadership post.

Santorum repeatedly clashed with the legendary West Virginia Democrat Robert C. Byrd, who won his Senate seat the year Santorum was born and went on to be the longest-serving senator in history. “In my 37 years in this Senate, I do not recall such insolence, and it is very sad that debate and discourse on the Senate floor have sunk to such a low level,” Byrd said in December 1995, lecturing the chamber about Santorum’s speeches.

Gingrich was ousted after the 1998 midterm elections. In political exile, he oversaw a group of nonprofit organizations and think tanks. Santorum kept up the charge and, after winning reelection in 2000, raised his profile even further.

By the time he ran again in 2006, Santorum’s staunchly conservative views placed him in a political bind in moderate Pennsylvania. Poised to move up in the Senate leadership to the No. 2 post if he could pull off a come-from-behind victory, Santorum did not waver on his conservative stances. He was defeated in one of the worst showings by an incumbent senator in recent decades, getting just 41 percent of the vote.

Five years later, again ignoring calls toward moderation, he told Iowans on Monday nightnot to waver from conservative principles. “You can do what Iowans tend to do,” he said. “You can ignore the pundit class. You can ignore the moderate Republicans, who say, ‘Oh, we need a moderate. We’ve got to win, we’ve got to win.’ And Iowa will stand up and say, ‘No. We need to be principled to win.’ ”

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