Rick Santorum’s risky running game

Rick Santorum on the campaign trail in Ohio (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

As Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum fought for his political life in 2006, his ally Senator Arlen Specter offered a word of advice: Just stop talking.

What Specter meant was that Santorum should stop talking about social issues, according to Adrienne Baker Green, a Specter aide who witnessed the exchange.

Santorum’s outspoken style on issues such as abortion and women in the workplace, which had once made him a star among social conservatives, appeared to be alienating more moderate Pennsylvania voters who would decide his fate in November 2006.

Santorum responded: “I can’t stop. Everyone is listening,” says Baker Green. Specter says he can’t recall the encounter; Santorum’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Santorum lost the 2006 Senate election by 18 percentage points, partly due to a wave of anti-Republican sentiment that year, but also because of his own words, which Democrats used to paint him as too extreme for Pennsylvania voters.

The arc of Santorum’s political career in Pennsylvania, where he first won over a Democratic district, then alienated voters, is beginning to look similar to his rise in the 2012 presidential race. With each advance, Santorum’s support has been partially undermined by his own controversial remarks. Just days before the Michigan primary, Santorum said President John F. Kennedy‘s 1960 speech on the separation of church and state made him want to “throw up.”

“I wish I had that particular line back,” he later said.

Santorum often portrays himself as a champion of the blue-collar voter whose experience winning rough-and-tumble elections in Pennsylvania shows he can attract moderates and independents.

A look at his five races in Pennsylvania reveals a candidate who thrives in the role of underdog and fighter. A hard-working door-to-door campaigner, he energized his conservative and evangelical base and won over blue-collar voters by securing federal funds that brought construction jobs.

Santorum also benefited from weak Democratic opponents and national trends that dovetailed with his anti-tax and pro-life message.

Pennsylvanians who worked on those campaigns recall his off-the-cuff style as well as his love of question-and-answer sessions in which he would eagerly talk about a broad range of issues. His advisers say he often came up with the topics of his speeches on the way to the venue.

Republicans in the Keystone State also recall a man who wouldn’t back down in an argument; often coming across as brash, abrasive and unscripted.

“Every so often, Rick throws the pass you don’t need to throw, to use a football analogy. And he threw a couple he didn’t need to throw,” says Alan Novak, a former Republican Party leader in Pennsylvania who is supporting former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney for the GOP nomination.

“I always call them unforced errors.”

Graphic showing Santorum’s campaigns: link.reuters.com/jaw86s

Video on Santorum’s focus heading into Ohio race: link.reuters.com/tyv86s

PENNSYLVANIA’S KEYSTONES

Political consultant James Carville famously described Pennsylvania as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh “with Alabama in between.” Political operatives there count at least three, and as many as six, mini-states within the state of various political stripes. Pennsylvania has backed the Democratic candidate for president in every race since 1992, while voters tend to be more conservative in statewide races.

In 1990, Rick Santorum, then a 32-year-old attorney, set his sights on a U.S. congressional seat that had been held by Democrat Doug Walgren for 14 years.

Santorum’s political experience up to that point consisted of working as chief of staff for a moderate, pro-choice state senator, Doyle Corman. Republican leaders and friends tried to persuade Santorum to run instead for a relatively safe Pennsylvania house seat in Harrisburg.

Santorum wouldn’t hear of it. He told friends that Walgren was too liberal for the district and that a conservative could win.

Keith Schmidt, who has worked on all of Santorum’s campaigns and is now an adviser on his presidential bid, says one of Santorum’s best political weapons is his intuition. “He just saw an opportunity that I can safely say no one saw that year.”

Santorum went all in. He quit his job and convinced his soon-to-be wife to quit hers and hit the campaign trail.

“We all told him he was crazy,” said State Senator Jake Corman, who took over his father’s seat after Doyle Corman retired from politics. But Santorum, he said, is fiercely competitive by nature, “from board games to public policy.”

Ron Klink, a Pittsburgh television reporter who would later go into politics as a Democrat and would lose the 2000 Senate race to Santorum, remembers Santorum standing on a bridge leading into downtown Pittsburgh, waving his campaign sign at passing cars.

“We referred to him as the Goof on the Bridge,” Klink says.

Schmidt says Santorum was involved in all aspects of campaigning. Santorum’s friends and foes alike agree he is a natural retail campaigner. He wore out three pairs of shoes criss-crossing the congressional district, says Schmidt.

“He personally hit 20,000 doors. That’s just so ridiculous,” he adds. Santorum would often follow up with a hand-written note to voters he had met that day, Schmidt says.

Santorum had a simple message: The incumbent, Walgren, was out of touch with his district because he lived in the Washington area rather than in Pennsylvania. Santorum’s slogan was “Leadership in Touch With You.”

“There were no warning signs at all. We could not find him in polling at the beginning of September,” Walgren says. “Our experience was he was able to leaflet very broadly, essentially knocking on doors, with young pro-life people. Pro-life was really gathering steam … and I was clearly pro-choice.”

Santorum ended up winning the district with just over 51 percent of the vote.

‘THE BEST UNDERDOG’

His next victory — winning re-election in 1992 — owed a lot to Democratic Party’s own troubles, Schmidt says. Two years later, with the district looking likely to turn Democratic in 1994, Schmidt says, Santorum turned his sights on a Senate seat.

Santorum was back in his element as the underdog. At town-hall meetings that year, he would tell voters that putting Santorum bumper stickers on their cars was worth as much as a $500 donation to his campaign.

Santorum packed his wife and young family into an RV and drove across the state to introduce himself to voters, remembers Becky Corman, the wife of his old boss, State Senator Doyle Corman, and Santorum’s 1994 grassroots coordinator.

“I have youth on my side,” Schmidt recalls Santorum telling his campaign staff. “You can schedule me long hours, I’ll give six speeches a day. I want to meet people.”

Santorum’s Democratic opponent that year was Harris Wofford, a former president of Bryn Mawr College and a founder of the Peace Corps. Democratic strategists remember Wofford as a reluctant campaigner, uncomfortable with going on the offensive, even as Santorum hammered him for supporting gun control.

Republican voters, especially pro-life evangelicals who had not been active in previous races, hosted fundraisers in their homes, said Novak, the former Pennsylvania GOP leader. The crowds grew.

“He’s the best underdog you ever saw,” says Novak. “He seems to derive his energy from always having a hill to climb.”

The Republican Revolution was sweeping the country. In Pennsylvania, turnout among conservatives surged. They made up 40 percent of voters in 1994, compared with 26 percent in 1992.

Santorum beat Wofford 49 to 47 percent, with the Christian Coalition and the gun lobby among his most enthusiastic supporters. Among moderates, Santorum trailed Wofford by 15 percentage points.

Six years later, Santorum faced Representative Ron Klink for the Senate seat. Klink had heard Santorum had a temper and hoped to get under his skin during the debates.

“Having been a hard-nosed reporter, and having been in Congress … I was absolutely positive, excuse my French, that I could piss off Rick Santorum and could really get him off of his center,” Klink says. “We had six debates. And I couldn’t get to him. I couldn’t get him to lose his cool.”

Santorum was ready. As part of his debate preparation, Schmidt and Santorum’s other advisers would have the candidate stand in front of a mirror, while they took shots at him.

“We would say the awfullest things to him and just get him off his mark – mean-spirited things – literally interrupt him a few times,” Schmidt says.

WASHINGTON INSIDER

Following his victory in 2000, and with George W. Bush in the White House, Santorum rose to become the Republican majority’s third-ranking official. He was among the Senate’s most passionate defenders of the Iraq War.

But as his profile rose nationally, trouble was brewing in Pennsylvania.

As the 2006 election approached, Bush’s popularity was reaching its nadir. Santorum’s support for the Iraq War was coming back to haunt him in his core constituencies.

Santorum’s Democratic opponent that year, Bob Casey Jr., was a pro-life, pro-gun moderate who had the same name as his father — a popular former Pennsylvania governor.

“In 2006, we were doubly blessed — we could run against George W. Bush and Rick Santorum,” says Democratic strategist Mary Isenhour, who helped run Casey’s campaign in 2006.

Santorum was also losing the women’s vote.

At dinner parties attended by Republicans that fall, Novak, the former party official, remembers being struck by how many women said they were not planning to support the senator.

Part of the problem was Santorum’s memoir, “It Takes A Family.” Against the advice of several longtime supporters, Santorum published the book the year before the election.

In it, Santorum decried “radical feminism’s misogynistic crusade to make working outside the home the only marker of social value and self-respect.” The line has come back to haunt Santorum on the presidential trail. He said recently that his wife, Karen, wrote that passage.

Santorum was also taking heat for comments he made in a 2003 interview with the Associated Press in which he appeared to liken homosexual sex to “man on dog.” Santorum has been asked about the comment repeatedly, and has never denied saying it.

“Nobody could believe he had actually said this,” says Isenhour, the Democratic strategist. “That was about as extreme as we’d ever heard from him, and then it kept getting worse.”

There was also a charge of hypocrisy. In 1990, Santorum won against Walgren in large part by portraying his opponent as a Washington insider who didn’t live in the district. By 2006, Santorum had moved his family to McLean, Virginia, where he was charging his Pennsylvania school district for his children’s education.

By July, with his poll numbers not moving, Santorum’s campaign met with a group of fiscal conservative grassroots activists. The group had backed the conservative Pat Toomey over the more moderate Specter in the 2004 Republican primary for one of Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate seats. They were still furious over Santorum’s endorsement of Specter, who was known disdainfully as a “King of Pork.” Specter would go on to win the election and then switch to the Democratic Party.

The group felt that Santorum had fallen out of touch with the small-government direction of the party. He, too, had gained fame for his ability to bring home the bacon to his Pennsylvania constituents. He had supported an increase in the minimum wage and government programs like No Child Left Behind, a federal program that emphasizes testing and performance standards in schools.

The meeting with the activists, most of them in their mid-20s, had been meant as a reconciliation. Several in attendance challenged Santorum on his support of deficit spending and earmarks. The gathering devolved into a profanity-peppered shouting match, say several people who were present.

“We walked in there, ready to reconcile, and we were just berated,” says Jason High, a conservative political activist. “It was not pretty … Rick just yelled and screamed at us.”

Bob Guzzardi, a real-estate developer who says he gave about $30,000 to the Santorum campaign that year, left the meeting, which dragged on more than 90 minutes, feeling “blown off.”

Ryan Shafik, a Toomey campaign aide who had interned with Santorum in 2000 but had fallen out with the senator, remembers Santorum taking an imperious tone at the meeting. “‘The conservative movement in Pennsylvania starts and ends with me,’” he recalls the senator saying.

Santorum’s campaign manager, Vince Galko, set up the meeting. He denies there was shouting and says that most of those in attendance remained supportive of Santorum’s campaign.

“The fact is that Rick went in there, showed how hard he was willing to fight for every vote and was willing to listen to all sides,” says Galko. “Their intent was, ‘You’ve got to come more to the right.’ His point – ‘I’m losing this race because people think I’m too far to the right.’”

“Keep this in context – you have the third-ranking member of the United States Senate who’s in the fight of his life in an election year, coming to Harrisburg to meet with these folks, he wasn’t going in there to yell at them,” says Galko. “He was going in there to work with them and enlist their support.”

Santorum lost the 2006 race in a landslide. Nearly six in 10 voters backed Casey, including 61 percent of female voters, according to CNN exit polls.

The only voting groups he was able to win convincingly were his base – evangelical and born-again Christians, voters who oppose abortion in all cases, and conservatives who approved of George W. Bush’s presidency, the exit polls showed.

“We were no great geniuses for taking him out,” says T.J. Rooney, a Democratic campaign consultant and a former chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Committee. “He was out there shooting his mouth off. He obviously doesn’t take direction very well.”

Jake Corman says the defeat wasn’t Santorum’s fault: “In 2006, people were ready to fire Republicans.”

Today, some GOP campaign managers in Pennsylvania worry that if Santorum wins the nomination, having him atop the ticket could hurt Pennsylvania Republicans in statewide races. Shafik, the Toomey campaign aide, says it could amount to a “Rickpocalypse.”

“The thing that Republican officials will not say publicly, but are saying privately, is that they fear that with Rick Santorum at the top of the ticket there’s going to be a blood bath” for Republicans, says Shafik.

Schmidt, still one of Santorum’s closest aides, said the campaign is betting that just as Santorum and his politics were out of fashion in 2006, nationally they are back in fashion in 2012.

As a precedent, he cites 1994 when Santorum cast himself as the unapologetic conservative against Wofford, the unapologetic liberal. This year, it would be conservative Santorum versus liberal Obama.

“The fact that the president believes in a liberal agenda and has articulated it well we’re going to articulate a conservative agenda,” says Schmidt. “And we’ll have to see where the middle breaks.”

(Reporting By Kristina Cooke and Edith Honan)

© Thomson Reuters 2012

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