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Santorum Overlooked, But For How Much Longer? Santorum Overlooked, But For How Much Longer? Santorum Overlooked, But For How Much Longer? Santorum Overlooked, But ...

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Politics / CAMPAIGN 2012

Santorum Overlooked, But For How Much Longer?

Rick Santorum has worked hard on the hustings but so far hasn't seen the payoff in the polls.(Chet Susslin)

photo of Alex  Roarty
November 18, 2011

His staff hasn’t quit en masse; he’s never stumbled in a debate; his record is free of personal scandal and any of the ideological inconsistency that has some of his Republican presidential rivals trying to explain away past positions.

So why haven’t fickle Republican conservatives, who have flitted from one candidate to the next on an almost weekly basis in a search for an alternative to Mitt Romney, given Rick Santorum a chance to be their champion of the moment?

The former senator from Pennsylvania, who spent 16 years in the debating society known as Congress, has delivered smooth, assured performances in nationally televised face-offs with his rivals. And unlike another congressional veteran who has done well in debates, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Santorum has run an efficient, drama-free, and highly disciplined campaign focused exclusively on the first three early voting states: Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.  

 

Santorum may be proof that a high-performing candidate and well-run campaign can’t trump a flawed resume and amessage out of sync with the times – at least not yet. Even as he scrapes the bottom of most polls, his campaign is quietly confident that Santorum’s moment will arrive soon, just as voters get serious about the race.

The single-biggest reason behind Santorum’s failure to launch – one that certainly has hindered his fundraising – is his last election. His 2006 race for a third term ended in a landslide defeat at the hands of Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. Casey’s nearly 20-point margin of victory came despite $30 million in spending by the incumbent Republican senator. It seemed to end Santorum’s political career and is the main reason Santorum started his presidential run as a significant underdog: How can someone who can’t even win his home state convince voters – and donors – that he’s got a shot at winning a nationwide campaign?

“There are so many people who like, respect, and trust Rick Santorum, but they have to see the path to victory,” said Chuck Laudner, a longtime Iowa Republican operative who recently decided to support the former senator. “With him, the only issue is viability.”

Santorum’s outspoken conservative views on social issues and foreign policy – which may have helped cost him his reelection in a year when Pennsylvania voters were swinging hard against the GOP -- might be hindering him again in the presidential race. The ex-senator touts himself a full-spectrum conservative, equally well-versed in economic and foreign-policy issues, but he also often makes a point of discussing the importance of family to the nation’s future. And he’s been one of the primary’s few outright international hawks, recommending an aggressively interventionist foreign policy not unlike the one that caused the polling numbers of former president George W. Bush to plummet.

A message like Santorum’s would have worked well in Republican primaries past, but 2012’s economic anxiety has changed the calculus for many voters, focusing their concerns on the economy. A Des Moines Register poll taken in late October found 48 percent of like caucusgoers ranked the national debt and spending as the country’s most important issue; 47 percent said jobs and the economy. 

They’re more reluctant about an aggressive foreign policy, and much less focused on social issues. According to a CBS News poll conducted last week, 63 percent of Republicans back Obama’s plan to withdraw troops from Iraq by the end of the year. 

Herman Cain, a political rookie who has risen to prominence on the strength of his background as a businessman and his “9-9-9” tax reform plan, is an obvious beneficiary of the shift in voters' focus to the economy.

Santorum represents the flip side of that coin. His two strong suits -- foreign policy and social conservatism – are the areas voters simply don’t care much about, said one Pennsylvania political operative who requested anonymity to speak candidly.

“If I had to rank the issue clusters for him from his best to his worst, it would be social, foreign, and economic,” the Republican said. “So people aren’t caring about two things he’s most fluent in.”

Hindered by poor fundraising, Santorum has focused on retail politics – he’s visited all 99 counties in Iowa, the state where the first votes of the presidential contest will be cast on Jan. 3. It’s a tactic that wins almost universal praise from many longtime political operatives, but at least so far it hasn’t paid off. Voters seem less concerned with the contenders’ visits to local diners than with their performances in debates and TV talk shows, a sign that the primaries have become nationalized.

Cain’s surge came despite rarely visiting any of the early states, while Gingrich’s campaign has taken many detours off the traditional path. Romney still appears near the top of Iowa polls, and his campaign has made a point of keeping the state at arm’s length. 

Santorum’s campaign doesn’t believe its groundwork in Iowa has gone to waste – just because it hasn’t paid off yet in the polls doesn’t mean it won’t, officials close to him say. It’s one reason they’re optimistic that even if Santorum hasn’t surged in the polls yet, it might only be a matter of time. John Brabender, a longtime senior adviser to the former senator, said he expects the race will continue to see a string of candidates-of-the-moment rise and fall, comparing Santorum’s rivals to “shining objects.”

“As happens, things change once people open up the hood and kick the tires,” he said.

Right now, he says Santorum’s biggest problem is a lack of media attention, which has kept his name recognition low. But voters will eventually begin preferring candidates with experience, Brabender said. He’s confident that’s when his candidate will begin to surge.

“I think you’ll see a big shift toward people concerned with credentials and experience,” he said. “And that plays to our advantage.” 

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