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Santorum Revisits Scene of 2006 Defeat as He Prepares Presidential Bid Santorum Revisits Scene of 2006 Defeat as He Prepares Presidential Bid

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Politics

Santorum Revisits Scene of 2006 Defeat as He Prepares Presidential Bid

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Ex-Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., interviewed at a Starbucks in Washington, D.C., last December, returns to his home state Thursday as he prepares for a presidential campaign.(Chet Susslin)

You might call it returning to the scene of the crime.

Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania who lost reelection there by nearly 20 points in 2006, returns to the Keystone State on Thursday to speak at a Lincoln Day Dinner in Uniontown, east of Pittsburgh.

 

It’s an unusual visit for Santorum, who has spent the last three years criss-crossing the country’s early-primary states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina -- but has maintained a relatively low profile in Pennsylvania. Santorum has made 32 visits to the three states that hold the first votes of the presidential campaign since late 2009, preparing for an all-but-declared White House bid that will hinge on attracting the support of social conservatives. Even so, Santorum still feels a need for friends in Pennsylvania -- a traditional presidential battleground.

“I think with the senator spending a great deal of time in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, this gives him an opportunity to see a lot of people he hasn’t seen in a long time,” said John Brabender, Santorum’s political strategist. The longtime Santorum adviser added that the ex-senator has worked hard to maintain his connections in Pennsylvania since 2006, speaking at an array of Republican events.

Still, his stop in Pennsylvania is a reminder of his defeat five years ago at the hands of Democrat Robert Casey, a loss that continues to handcuff his presidential campaign as Republicans try to gauge whether a man who lost in his home state can be considered a serious presidential candidate.

 

Santorum and Brabender are trying to turn the defeat into a campaign asset, arguing that the senator lost because he stuck to his conservative principles at a time when the political headwinds were blowing strongly in the Democrats’ favor. That message could resonate at a time when many conservatives are focused on supporting only those they consider authentic conservatives.

Santorum’s support among Republicans didn’t waver in 2006, said Brabender; only independents and Democrats turned strongly against him. The strategist says that support remains today: He cited polls taken earlier this month that show Santorum with slightly higher support than even newly elected Republican Sen. Pat Toomey.

“He certainly has some brand equity, and clearly it’s the Republicans that are keeping his numbers where they are,” said Brabender. “If he gets in the race, it’s about winning the primary to get to the general election.”

But Santorum’s support among some conservative activists in Pennsylvania remains mixed, a reminder of some of the difficulties he might face when he appeals for their support in other states. Many of them questioned his track record as a fiscal conservative after holding a leadership position in the Senate during the first half of the decade, a time when the GOP ran deficits and passed a major expansion of Medicare.

 

“If you’re a social conservative and that’s your No. 1 priority, Rick Santorum is probably one of your top guys with [Mike] Huckabee and [Sarah] Palin,” said Ryan Shafik, a Harrisburg-based conservative strategist. “If you’re for fiscally conservative limited government and restrained, modest foreign policy, then he’s not your candidate.”

The activists’ biggest problem with Santorum, however, might be his endorsement of Arlen Specter during his neck-and-neck primary against Toomey in 2004. Specter won the race but later switched parties to become a Democrat. Santorum has said he backed Specter over the more conservative Toomey in exchange for Specter's promise to support then-president George W. Bush's Supreme Court nominees. Specter, who chaired the Judiciary Committee, has denied there was a quid pro quo.

Some Pennsylvania conservatives aren't buying Santorum's explanation. “He went overtime to defeat Pat, which really incensed the grassroots,” said Shafik.  

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