Santorum: A 2012 long shot tests the water

By Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 10, 2010; 12:00 AM

GOFFSTOWN, N.H. - It was pushing 10 p.m., and Rick Santorum was sitting at the corner table in a near-empty Dunkin' Donuts. The garishly lit scene might have been lifted straight from the movie "Primary Colors."

"I'm feeling like doors are opening," the Republican former senator from Pennsylvania mused over his decaf. "Things are happening that maybe give me the impression that maybe I need to look at this seriously."

So seriously that Santorum was on his seventh trip to New Hampshire since April. Not to mention seven to Iowa over the past 14 months and seven to South Carolina in that time.

It had been a busy day: morning meetings with influential New Hampshire Republicans and grass-roots leaders, a luncheon with the Manchester Rotary Club, a dash to the seacoast for a private audience with former governor John Sununu, a dinner with GOP activist Claira Monier, then a question-and-answer session with the Goffstown-Weare Republican Committee.

Santorum had yet another meeting that evening back at his hotel. Before heading home the next day, he would get in an early-morning speech to a second Rotary chapter, a round of media interviews, more face time with GOP activists. Oh, and he'd make it to Mass at a nearby church.

This is what the embryonic days of a long-shot presidential campaign look like.

"If someone gets in the race that I feel really comfortable could do the things that need to be done - both winning and governing - then maybe this is a chance to say, 'Let this cup pass,' " Santorum said. "At this point, given what I see out there, I'm not feeling that."

It takes a certain kind of self-assurance, some might say a certain kind of self-delusion, to look at what it takes to capture the presidency of the United States and think: Hey, why not me?

It is an especially tall climb for a Republican like Santorum. Democrats have a history of taking chances on unknowns and fresh faces. The current occupant of the White House was two years out of the Illinois Senate when he sized up the competition, asked himself the same question and decided he was up to it.

But the GOP has a tradition of anointing the next person in line. With more than a dozen other names being mentioned, Santorum is nowhere near the front. The last time he was on a ballot, in a 2006 bid for a third Senate term in Pennsylvania, he lost by 18 percentage points.

Yet Santorum believes that this is an altered political environment - and that this time, the process of selecting a presidential nominee could be different for Republicans.

Others agree that the old GOP script could be rewritten in 2012. "People are desperate to the point of panic in wanting to get rid of Barack Obama, and increasingly anxious about the prospects of some of our choices," said a prominent Republican strategist, who did not want to be quoted by name suggesting that anything is lacking on the GOP bench.

"Every one of these people is either deeply flawed or irredeemably polarizing, and that's why a guy like Santorum is going to get a look."

Then there's the fact that the Republican establishment may not be in the driver's seat this time. And the other fact that Santorum was a tea party kind of guy before there was a tea party.

Tempered by time

In the recent history of Washington, few have so gleefully ransacked the established order or shown such contempt for its protocols.

Elected to the House in 1990 at the tender age of 32, Santorum made his mark as one of the "Gang of Seven" freshmen who exposed the House banking scandal. They forced the disclosure that more than half of their colleagues had written hot checks, and helped send dozens into retirement or defeat.

As a freshman senator four years later, Santorum violated the chamber's decorous folkways by carting around a "Where's Bill?" sign to demand a balanced budget from President Bill Clinton. He tried to have Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) removed as chairman of the Appropriations Committee because of Hatfield's refusal to support a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.

Santorum was notorious for his moral pronouncements. He contended, for instance, that Boston's liberal culture was partly to blame for the sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church there, and suggested that lifting antiquated state sodomy laws would sanction bestiality - or as he put it, "man on dog."

Santorum still breathes fire. In his evolving stump speech, he frames the prospect of Obama's reelection in near-apocalyptic terms: "Democracy and freedom will disappear." His agenda consists of stopping pretty much everything that has been set in motion in the past two years, starting with the overhaul of the nation's health-care system.

Since losing his Senate seat, Santorum has been splitting his time among various endeavors. He has a think tank perch at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a gig as a Fox News commentator, consulting work and speeches.

With seven kids, including a 2-year-old who was born with a serious medical condition, he has to weigh the avocation of running for president against the need to earn money. But friends say his eagerness to get back into the give-and-take of politics and policy is palpable. When he talks about the Senate, where he once had hopes of becoming majority leader, Santorum still occasionally uses the word "we" and slips into the present tense.

His had been an against-the-odds success story. The first true conservative whom Pennsylvania had sent to the Senate since 1952, he even landed a spot in the Senate GOP leadership. But his luck and his political skills ran out in 2006, a bad year to be a Republican and an especially bad one to be challenged by the moderate son of a popular former governor.

Except for the whisper of white around his temples, Santorum at 52 appears little changed from the boyish provocateur who stormed Washington two decades ago. But if he hasn't mellowed exactly, he has been tempered - by age, by experience, by defeat.

As he was taking questions recently at a gathering of College Republicans at American University, one student asked what he would tell someone who was entering Congress now.

"Keep the fire, but don't burn the place down," Santorum said. "It's a great country. It's a great institution. It makes mistakes, but you're not perfect, either."

Over coffee in New Hampshire, the Santorum of 2010 conceded that the Santorum of 1990 would not have had much regard for that kind of advice.

"In a sense, I learned it the hard way," he said. "I'm sure I made statements that at the time were very broad-brush."

Old-fashioned way

If Santorum does run for the presidency - a decision he says he will not make until next year - he would not start with the ready-made organization of former governors Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, both of whom ran in 2008, or the name identification of former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), or the supernova force of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.

Santorum's team consists of a small circle of longtime advisers, most of whom are working for him part-time. But his political action committee has raised nearly $1.4 million this year, and the lion's share came in small contributions.

His audiences also tend to be small, and conservative, but they are receptive. "The people they trust the most are the people who understand the economic issues and the people who understand the social issues," said Kim Lehman, a Republican National Committee member and former president of Iowa Right to Life. "He brings that to the table, and people see that, and he's likeable."

Even in the era of Twitter and Facebook, Santorum is convinced that he would have to go about this the old-fashioned way. "If you're someone like me who is way in the back of the pack, you have to do well early, or you don't go far," he said.

He has already picked up some practical pointers. In New Hampshire, it's best to keep his Starbucks gold card in his wallet. In this state - where Dunkin' Donuts stores are as ubiquitous as Dairy Queens are in Iowa - people don't like to see their candidates drinking designer coffee.

But the most pointed advice has been from his wife, Karen, who issued a dictate she had never given in his earlier endeavors.

"Do it right. Be serious about it," Santorum recalled her telling him. "If you decide to do this, don't embarrass me."

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