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After a shaky performance in Wednesday’s Republican debate in Mesa, Arizona, Rick Santorum did something rare for presidential candidates in his situation: He walked into the “spin room,” the raucous space where campaign advisers ply reporters with reasons why their candidate won the debate.
Other candidates typically leave such post-game cleanup to surrogates. Not Santorum. In a reflection of his free-wheeling and impulsive campaign, the former Pennsylvania senator dived in, complaining that rivals Mitt Romney and Ron Paul had ganged up on him during the debate.
Santorum’s move invited ridicule from Romney’s campaign. “Whiny silliness,” Romney adviser Stuart Stevens called the complaint. But it captured the improvisational nature of Santorum’s increasingly provocative run for the Republican nomination.
While Newt Gingrich‘s campaign presents itself as the product of his intelligence and Romney’s flexes its muscles with a parade of endorsers and advisers, Santorum’s campaign has never dropped the bare-bones model it used in winning the Iowa caucuses on January 3.
Santorum may now fly in a private plane but he campaigns like he’s still riding shotgun in a Dodge Ram pickup truck as he did in Iowa, depending on a very small group of advisers who aren’t big on organization. His campaign stops often are planned on the fly, and there are frequent missteps in putting on media events.
Other candidates have long lists of advisers and go-to people on various policy issues, but Santorum does not appear to have anyone like that advising him.
“He doesn’t need to go to somebody to tell him what to think because he is well-versed in these issues,” said Santorum spokesman Hogan Gidley.
As a result, Santorum has been relatively unfiltered and unencumbered in the state-by-state race to determine which Republican will face Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 6 election.
That has been particularly clear since February 7, when victories in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado gave Santorum a front-runner’s platform.
Santorum’s recent pitches to conservative voters in a series of controversial remarks about women in combat, abortion, pre-natal testing and Obama’s “theology” have tilted the narrative of the campaign toward social issues — much to the dismay of many Republican leaders, who want to focus on Obama’s handling of the economy and are wary of Santorum’s go-it-alone approach.
Some longtime observers of Santorum say they aren’t surprised that he has used much of his time in the spotlight to move the campaign toward divisive social issues.
“The remarkable thing is how disciplined he was for seven months,” said G. Terry Madonna, a longtime observer of Pennsylvania politics at Franklin & Marshall College. “He has a long history of coming unplugged.”
MOCKING ROMNEY’S TEAM
Unlike Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, Santorum has given few clues about who would surround him if he were elected president.
In October, Romney announced a cadre of policy advisers.
Twenty-four people are assisting the Romney campaign as special advisers in foreign affairs and national security. Thirteen working groups have been tasked with advising Romney on everything from Afghanistan and Pakistan to international organizations.
In advance of Tuesday’s primaries in Arizona and Michigan, Santorum essentially has mocked Romney for putting together such a big team. Romney has accused Santorum of being a Washington insider as a senator but Santorum has fired back, citing Romney’s advice team.
“Look at all the folks who have gathered around and supported some of the other candidates in this race,” Santorum said in Holland, Michigan, on Monday. “We have not been long on Washington insiders supporting us. One after another, they have supported other candidates in this race.”
Similarly, Santorum has rejected Gingrich’s approach.
Gingrich, a former U.S. House of Representatives speaker, revels in the intellectual underpinnings of his campaign. On Gingrich’s web site, which he touts frequently, visitors can find his 54-page white paper on the U.S. judicial system.
Rather than footnoted white papers, Santorum’s policy prescriptions read like editorial articles designed to appeal to the most conservative Republicans.
Far more than Romney, Santorum is accessible and available to comment on anything — an approach that encourages the type of off-the-cuff comments he has been made about religion and social issues during the past week.
The Santorum campaign’s unrehearsed quality can lead to unexpected moments, as when Santorum said that Obama’s “theology” was not “based on the Bible.”
The campaign’s spontaneity is reflected in its most visible supporter: Foster Friess, a wealthy, wisecracking investor from Wyoming who caused a stir last week by joking that the best contraception method was for a woman to keep an aspirin between her knees.
A MISSED OPPORTUNITY
At the end of 2011, Santorum’s campaign had 11 people on its payroll, according to campaign finance filings with the Federal Election Commission. Romney’s campaign had 97 people on staff.
The minimalist nature of Santorum’s campaign sometimes has led to problems in planning its biggest events.
Hoping for a surprise victory on March 6 in the battleground state of Ohio, Santorum’s campaign sent out a notice on February 17, promising a “major campaign announcement” that afternoon in Columbus, Ohio’s capital.
The night before, Santorum had secured a big endorsement: that of Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who told Santorum he was dropping his support of Romney and backing Santorum.
Santorum’s campaign quickly scheduled a news conference. But nearly all the national media covering Santorum were setting up for a campaign event in Michigan, four hours north of the DeWine news conference that was supposed to start in less than three hours.
And so the DeWine announcement became something of a missed opportunity, as only a few reporters were on hand for Santorum’s celebration of the endorsement.
In January, Romney’s campaign spent $19 million while Santorum’s spent $3.3 million.
Santorum aides see the campaign as a symbol of how their boss would operate as president. Gidley, the campaign spokesman, spends most of his time in South Carolina, far from the candidate. Senior adviser John Brabender operates out of Virginia.
On the trail, Santorum’s entourage typically includes one or two of his seven children and occasionally his wife, Karen. Greg Rothman, a former Marine and president of a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, real estate company, is often along for the ride, too. Rothman has no official role with the campaign. He is known to reporters as the Senior Best Friend.
While some conservative Republicans see Santorum as a conservative alternative to Romney, campaign operatives also see Santorum’s bid as an antidote to his rival’s corporate campaign style.
“It’s the way the successful campaigns are growing now,” said Dave Carney, one-time top adviser to Texas Governor Rick Perry’s failed presidential campaign. “Old-fashioned campaigns are dinosaurs, and they are expensive to feed.”
(Additional reporting by Alexander Cohen; Editing by David Lindsey and Cynthia Osterman)
© Thomson Reuters 2012