Rick Santorum faced with strategy shift that will test his shoestring campaign

Rick Santorum does not plan to abandon the fiery Christian rhetoric or the shoestring campaign that got him to where he is today. But as a slate of high-stakes Republican presidential primaries approaches, he is being forced to shift his strategy to beat back perceptions that he is obsessed with controversial social issues and harbors outdated ideas about women.

The shift will test Santorum’s skills as a candidate as well as his bare-bones campaign operation, which is struggling to match his status as a top-tier candidate. The operation’s priority this week is to hold on to the candidate’s lead in polls in Ohio, which will vote on Tuesday.

Mitt Romney outperformed Santorum by large margins among women and men in Arizona, according to exit polls. But in Michigan, Santorum lost women to Romney by five percentage points, an edge that provided the former Massachusetts governor with his narrow margin there.

Although Santorum sought to spin the Michigan results as a tie, it is clear that the contest revealed a significant challenge for him. He has been outspoken about contraception, abortion and his wife’s decision to leave her career as a lawyer to home-school their seven children.

Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, seemed to recognize the problem even before the final results were tallied in Michigan, and in at least three speeches in recent days, he has made appeals to women, recalling not only his wife’s career, but also that of his 93-year-old mother. On Wednesday, in Tennessee, he described his daughter Elizabeth as “one of the great women” in his life. That was a subtle shift from what used to be a routine introduction of his eldest child, who often travels with him.

Aides noted that Santorum’s campaign includes women in senior positions and they promised a greater effort in coming days to flesh out the candidate’s biography beyond some of his more controversial positions on social issues.

They insist that their economic message is being overshadowed by questions about Santorum’s social platform.

“There’s a lot that’s written about Rick that he feels is not really who he is,” said John Brabender, a top adviser. “Instead of letting perceptions become the reality based upon what we would consider images that are pushed by his opponents or segments of the news media that might be less favorable, he wants to provide a fuller picture of the reality.”

To that end, Santorum is moving to expand the biographical portions of his stump speeches. In talking about his mother in an address in Ohio, he presented her as a woman ahead of her time.

“She worked all of my childhood years. She balanced time as my dad did, working different schedules and she was a very unusual person at that time,” Santorum said. “She was a professional who actually made more money than her husband. I grew up with a very strong mom, someone who was a professional person who taught me a lot of things about balancing work and family and doing it well, doing it with a big heart and commitment.”

Yet in working to shed his image as a hidebound conservative on women’s issues, Santorum risks alienating the network of home-schoolers, evangelical Christians and “values voters” who have powered his rise, first in Iowa and then in a string of February contests.

The challenge comes as his campaign tries to pivot to a more national footing going into Super Tuesday next week, when 10 very different states will hold votes.

Aides say that Santorum will cede some of those contests to focus on the caucus states out West, as well as Tennessee, where he has an edge in recent polls, and Ohio.

His campaign has grown from the first contest, in Iowa, when Santorum drove the “Chuck Wagon” from county to county, sometimes speaking to only a handful of people. Now, Secret Service agents watch his every move and he travels more frequently with a newly hired press aide.

Over the past few weeks, his campaign received a major upgrade — its headquarters grew from being a post office box in Pennsylvania to a bricks and mortar building in Virginia.

But still, Santorum doesn’t have nearly the infrastructure that Romney has, and his senior aides are based all over, in Iowa, South Carolina, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, operating a virtual war room via BlackBerry and conference calls.

The team lacks a pollster, a staple of most modern political campaigns. The only bus that bears Santorum’s name doesn’t even belong to his operation. The Duggar family of reality TV fame owns it.

Sometimes the gap shows.

While Romney, even in the early days, has an aide whose job is to place a wooden soapbox at just the right spot in a crowd for the candidate to stand on, Santorum’s campaign relies heavily on volunteers. He rarely gives more than 24 hours’ notice for events.

That is not to say that the operation amounts to “Rick, a duffel bag and an airline ticket,” Brabender said.

The communications staff has grown from two to six so the campaign can push messages and respond to media inquiries. Key aspects of the operation, including policy, finance, ground game and digital, have added staff. But the team doesn’t plan to hire a pollster or conduct any focus groups or message-testing, preferring that the candidate take his cues from his audiences and speak from his gut.

The bare-bones nature of his campaign has evolved into a talking point for Santorum, who emphasizes that he is David against Romney’s Goliath. It allows him to point out Romney’s weaknesses and his own fiscal prudence. And aides say it allows the campaign to reflect the personality of a candidate who relishes his interactions with voters.

But this also has worked to Santorum’s disadvantage. Aides say they plan to curtail the mini-news conferences he has often held after events to limit his exposure to the media, which the campaign blames for what it considers a caricature of the candidate as a one-trick pony on cultural issues.

“We would love to be the first with schedules out and have banners in the background and a large staff, and we’re working on it,” said Alice Stewart, Santorum’s new national press secretary. “But we want that one-on-one connection with people and no amount of money in the world can pay for that asset and Rick’s ability to connect one on one with voters and to read a crowd.”

Sandhya Somashekhar is a health reporter for the Washington Post.
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