Rick Santorum is long on substance, short on support

December 15, 2011

Rick Santorum has just come out of a campaign event at Cornell College, in Mount Vernon, Iowa, where the GOP presidential contender says he received the “typical college-crowd” questions challenging his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. But when he was their age, he felt differently about those issues, too.

“Rooster” Santorum, as he was known, thanks to his cowlick, from seventh grade all the way through Penn State, wasn’t too devout back then, and the only social issues on his screen involved beer and cigars. When he and his wife started dating, in their 20s, she was living with an OB-GYN who not only performed abortions but also had founded Pittsburgh’s first abortion clinic.

Asked about it now, the former senator from Pennsylvania doesn’t act as if he thinks this is the shame of the city or anything: “She had been, yeah. When we met, she was in the process of getting out of that relationship. But we all go through changes in our lives.’’ It wasn’t until he ran for office for the first time, at age 32, that he chose a side on the abortion issue.

And he’s still less harshly judgmental than advertised. Through most of his political career, one of his most trusted staff members was an openly gay man in a committed relationship. When he came out to his boss and offered to resign, the man says, Santorum’s immediate response was “Well, I don’t hate you, I love you, and I want you to stay.” What’s more, the man said, Santorum told him he would never expect him to pretend or say anything he didn’t actually believe.

Long stalled at the back of the Republican pack in polls, Santorum says all he needs to do to stay in the race beyond Iowa is exceed the media’s sub-basement expectations for him in that state’s caucuses on Jan. 3: “I just have to convince folks we’re not only the candidate they can trust” — and here he pauses for a minute to give directions to his driver and one-man travel team — “but the one who can win.’’ To get the media attention and money that would make that possible, he reasons, he has to be the candidate who supplies the surprise of the night at the caucuses.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of small surprises in the way his friends describe him: “I call him a chocolate-covered strawberry, because he’s hard on the outside and soft on the inside,’’ his former aide says. “He’s combative, and can speak before he thinks, but once he figures out he’s hurt someone’s feelings, he apologizes,’’ genuinely feels bad and sometimes goes overboard trying to make amends.

Media consultant John Brabender, who has worked with Santorum since 1990, says: “People always tell him, ‘You’re nothing like I thought you were going to be.’ ”

“He seems so assured of his positions, but people don’t know how much he struggled to get to those positions. He doesn’t play middle of the road, but there’s a person in there that people don’t always see.”

Of the several hundred clients Brabender has had over the years, he says, Santorum is certainly unlike any other in his political calculations: When it looked like he was going to lose his first Senate race, in 1994, Brabender remembers him worrying that he might have blown it for his campaign workers. Trailing badly in his last race, against Robert P. Casey Jr. in 2006, “everyone was telling him to move to the middle or throw [George W.] Bush under the bus, but he looked at the polls and said, ‘I don’t see how I can win this, but I do have a microphone, so I’m going to use it to talk about Iran’ — then spent the next three weeks talking almost exclusively’’ about the threat posed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “No one could understand it.’’

His current uphill presidential race, Brabender says, really is based on Santor­um’s certainty that he would be the most effective conservative alternative to President Obama. “We’ve laughed about, ‘What do you do after you lose by 18 points? I know, you run for president.’ ”

Santorum rails at the suggestion, offered by another of his friends, that he’s running “to keep his name out there,” or as an investment in his future on the conservative speaking circuit: “I’m losing my shirt out here! I’m not making any money, I’m spending our money, and it’s not like I have a lot of money to spend. I’m doing this because I think I’m the best person to do the job.”

The son of a psychologist and a nurse who worked at a VA hospital, Santorum grew up in a not terribly political or pious Catholic family. He was a young lawyer representing the World Wrestling Association when he met his wife, Karen, a law student his firm was trying to recruit. But when they fell in love, he says, “we realized this was something different than either of us had experienced before, and that now we were getting serious about our lives. We grew in our faith together.’’

As far as the abortion issue was concerned, however, Santorum says that for many years, “I took a laissez-faire approach to it, felt uncomfortable talking and it and kept my head down. But when I decided to run’’ for Congress in 1990, “people said, “You have to take a position.’ My father-in-law is a geneticist and he walked me through it and I saw it was a human life’’ from conception.

The candidate is long on substance, but not always the smoothest on the stump; at an event in Iowa, a woman in her 60s tells him that she, too, has seven children, and he gives her arm a little sock and says, “That’s a good start; keep going.” But Iowans keep telling him that he’s still on their list of possibles — and that they like how he keeps showing up.

At a time when other GOP candidates stand accused of shaking hands with Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren more often than with ordinary Iowans, Santorum is hoping his door-to-door commitment will pay off. He sees encouragement in a slight uptick in donations and crowds and, as always, keeps doing what he’s doing.

When teased about a fundraising ­e-mail on “multimillionaire former venture capitalist” Mitt Romney’s $10,000 bet — wait, isn’t that class warfare? — he starts to defend it, then laughs and gives it up: “We’re looking for any way to raise money” to keep running “the improbable race we’ve run on duct tape and baling wire. And pizza.’’

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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