Santorum’s handlers struggle to keep him on message

GOP Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

Rick Santorum‘s advisers outlined a new strategy for staying on message in the hours after he lost to Mitt Romney in Michigan’s Republican presidential primary. Just as quickly, the strategy fell by the wayside.

It was a victim of the disorganization that’s marked the Santorum campaign and raised questions about his ability to compete against Mitt Romney over the long haul.

“They could be much better on discipline,” said Republican operative Michael Dennehy, a top aide for Sen. John McCain four years ago. “They’ve been very open about their change in messaging after Tuesday’s election. It lasted about 12 hours.”

Romney is almost painfully consistent when pounding his message about jobs and the economy. The Santorum campaign says the former Pennsylvania senator is the lone candidate in the Republican race who has the courage to talk about all the issues — from female contraception to Iran and everything in between.

That’s where Santorum stumbled in Michigan. His team blamed unflattering media coverage but conceded that their candidate suffered from the perception that he was off message when he defended polarizing comments questioning the value of higher education, the separation of church and state, and even Satan’s influence on America. Eventually Santorum lost the state to Romney by just 3 percentage points.

A new approach guided Santorum’s primary night speech. In a hotel ballroom in Grand Rapids, Mich., he began talking more about his working-class background, particularly the women who have influenced him. He explained how his mother, a former nurse who worked throughout his childhood, “taught me a lot of things about how to balance work and family, and doing it well, and doing it with a big heart and commitment.”

The change in message was intended in part to contrast Santorum with Romney, who grew up with wealth and privilege as the son of a governor and auto executive. Widely covered by the media, Santorum’s remarks that night also helped to humanize a man who has drawn fire for questioning the role of women in the workforce and the military. Polling suggests that Santorum’s loss was caused, in part, because Romney fared better with female voters.

“He is always going to have to struggle by responding to misperceptions that are out there,” top adviser John Brabender told a handful of reporters after the Michigan loss became official. “The way that you solve that sometimes is to let people into your life and see a picture of you that you don’t always share.”

It was a strategy widely viewed as smart — and it didn’t last.

As Santorum crisscrossed the country to rally voters ahead of Super Tuesday, talk of his mother seemed forgotten. He offered passing references to his coal-mining grandfather, as he has for months. Instead of a new emphasis on his personal background, he seized upon Romney’s apparent misstep on contraception policy, delivered sometimes rambling speeches about health savings accounts with college students in Nashville, Tenn., and defended Ronald Reagan’s fight against evil during an appearance at a church in Spokane, Wash.

At the American Croation Lodge in Willoughby, Ohio, Santorum said it was impossible to talk about the economy without talking about the importance of two-parent families.

“Go to the areas of Cleveland where you don’t see any dads. What do you see? Do you see freedom? Do you see opportunity?” he asked during his Friday night appearance. “Do you see jobs? Do you see police? Do you see government? Everywhere. That’s the reality.”

Santorum treats his seat-of-the-pants campaign style like a badge of honor, often mentioning that he doesn’t employ a campaign pollster. Aides marvel at his ability to deliver lengthy speeches and even major addresses while drawing only from a handwritten list of basic points, if any notes at all.

Even he acknowledges his speaking style has its pitfalls, citing as an example his dismissal of President Barack Obama as “a snob” for promoting higher education.

“I used the term ‘snob.’ You know, it was a — it was a strong term, probably not the smartest thing,” Santorum said. “But you know what? I don’t give prepared talking point speeches written by other people. I got a little passionate there and I used a harsher word than I normally would.”

Republican operative Todd Harris says it’s important — and increasing difficulty — for a campaign to control its message with the rise of super PACs, outside groups, tabloid political journalism and instant news cycles

“About the only thing you can control is what comes out of the candidate’s mouth,” Harris says. “Except when you can’t.”

(c) Copyright 2012 The Associated Press

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