Sporting his signature sweater vest and telling stories of his coal miner grandfather, Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum has struck a chord in the Rust Belt that is helping propel his once long-shot candidacy.
Although he is a millionaire, Santorum has found a common touch that has helped put him atop opinion polls in the industrial states of Michigan and Ohio and raised serious doubts about whether longtime front-runner Mitt Romney can win the Republican nomination to take on President Barack Obama in the November 6 election.
Santorum’s portrayal of himself as the blue-collar Republican has managed to overshadow Romney’s jobs message in a part of the country troubled by unemployment.
In conversations with nearly a dozen voters preparing to cast ballots for the former Pennsylvania senator in the Ohio and Michigan primaries, not one person volunteered that Santorum was the best candidate to revive American industry.
Instead, voters said they were coming to Santorum’s side because his everyman style and Christian faith reminded them of themselves.
“He’s basically down-to-earth,” said Janice Thomas, 56, of Pickerington, Ohio, who is retired.
“Maybe I think he is more like me,” said David Diyani, 58, a pastor at the Vineyard Church in Etna, Ohio. “I feel like I can relate to him.”
Santorum’s life, though, is far from ordinary.
He spent 12 years in the Senate, known as the “world’s most exclusive club,” and earned degrees in law and business. He purchased a luxury Audi sedan and earned hundreds of thousands of dollars as a consultant in recent years. Santorum’s 2010 salary – $923,000 – placed him squarely within the top 1 percent of income earners in America.
Yet he can still draw a sharp contrast to Romney, a former Massachusetts governor whose fortune is estimated at up to $270 million and who often makes gaffes that show a lack of familiarity with ordinary Americans’ struggles.
“I do my own taxes,” Santorum said at the Detroit Economic Club on Thursday. “Heck, Romney paid half the taxes I did. He doesn’t do his own taxes. Maybe I should hire an accountant in the future.”
Santorum’s previous criticism of the government bailout of the auto industry in 2009 might be a problem in Michigan where millions of people rely on the car companies. But Romney was a more vocal opponent of the rescue, leaving his rival’s opposition to it largely overlooked.
A Detroit News poll, released last week, showed Santorum leading Romney 34 percent to 30 percent in Michigan, the state where Romney was born and where his father was governor. A Quinnipiac poll had Santorum leading Romney 36 percent to 29 percent in Ohio. Michigan’s primary is on February 28 and Ohio votes on March 6.
Part of the Santorum surge can be accounted for by disaffected supporters of Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
“I decided to support him three weeks ago. Before that, I was for Gingrich,” said Steve Izev, 34, of Westerville, Ohio. “The more popular he got, the more I liked him.”
Santorum’s rise in the polls is also fueled by the same phenomenon that successively lifted Texas Governor Rick Perry, former pizza magnate Herman Cain, and Gingrich to the front of the pack: He is not Romney.
In a Pew Research Center poll released last Monday, 50 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning respondents nationwide said Romney was not a strong conservative.
“They are the ‘anybody-but-Romney’ people. They are the ‘un-Romney’ people,” said Bill Ballenger, editor of the “Inside Michigan Politics” newsletter. “There is no reason in Michigan that they should be for Santorum. They don’t really know who he is really.”
A political climate featuring renewed debate over religious freedom, contraception and gay rights has benefited the devoutly
Catholic Santorum among evangelical Republicans.
In the Inside Michigan Poll, Michigan voters who said social issues were most important to them chose Santorum over Romney by 64 percent to 19 percent.
Faith is never far from the Santorum campaign. At a phone bank for Santorum in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, the Ten Commandments were nailed to the wall. Paintings of Jesus and Mary hung in a back room.
Supporters of the conservative Tea Party movement praise Santorum for his frequent references to the U.S. Constitution. Santorum campaigns with a pocket-sized version that he removes from his coat for emphasis on the campaign trail.
In a MRG/Inside Michigan Poll released on Wednesday, Santorum bettered Romney among Tea Party supporters by 51 percent to 22 percent.
Female voters are the most resistant to Santorum. In Michigan polls, where Santorum leads Romney among a number of groups, the two are neck and neck in support among women.
In recent weeks, Santorum has drawn controversy with comments about working women and women in the military.
On the campaign trail, Santorum stokes voters’ outrage that they are underappreciated by people in power.
“You are not being talked to as adults,” Santorum told a Tea Party rally in Columbus on Saturday. “You are being treated as mindless, fly-over-country rubes who don’t need to know the truth.”
“We used to be called the Silent Majority,” said Terry McGiffin, 69, a retired management trainer from Westerville, Ohio, describing Santorum’s supporters.
Many supporters confess a lack of familiarity with Santorum’s policy prescriptions but say they find him to be the Republican field’s most likable entrant.
“I don’t know a lot about him,” said Gary Henson, 32, the owner of a medical supply company in Columbus. “I like his demeanor. I like his personality.”
(Editing by Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney)
(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2012