Rick Santorum Plots His Return

The 2012 contender is weighing another White House run — and another chance to be every bit as conservative as mainstream Republicans fear.

Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum speaks at the 'Patriots for Romney-Ryan Reception' on August 29, 2012 in Tampa, Florida.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
Feb. 20, 2014, 4:58 a.m.

Listen­ing to pun­dits talk about the po­ten­tial 2016 Re­pub­lic­an field, you’d be for­giv­en for for­get­ting about Rick San­tor­um. The former sen­at­or’s strong second-place show­ing in 2012 shocked — even scared — the GOP’s king­makers, who saw in him an abor­tion-hat­ing firebrand with no chance of beat­ing Barack Obama. So it’s no sur­prise that today, the party’s main­stream­ers are act­ing like he’s old news, again dis­miss­ing a San­tor­um pres­id­en­tial can­did­acy.

Not that he cares. He’s too busy plot­ting an­oth­er pos­sible run at the White House.

In re­cent months, San­tor­um has gathered his in­ner circle of long­time ad­visers to sketch out a pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. He’s schedul­ing trips to New Hamp­shire and Iowa, his aides say, and will stop over in South Car­o­lina, where his son at­tends the Cit­adel. And at the end of April, he’ll re­lease a book that could double as his can­did­acy’s mani­festo, flesh­ing out the themes that an­im­ated his pre­vi­ous White House bid.

San­tor­um’s in­terest in a cam­paign — he has not yet de­cided wheth­er he’ll run — will again eli­cit groans from top Re­pub­lic­ans, who met his de­clar­a­tion four years ago with a mix of eye rolls and laughter. But this is not the same can­did­ate, and it’s not the same elec­tion en­vir­on­ment. Then, the sen­at­or’s most re­cent tangle with voters had yiel­ded a 20-point de­feat in his home state of Pennsylvania, an em­bar­rass­ing loss for the then-No. 3 lead­er in the Sen­ate. Now, San­tor­um would be en­ter­ing the race as the can­did­ate who won 11 nom­in­at­ing con­tests and hun­dreds of del­eg­ates in the last pres­id­en­tial primary — and came with­in a few vic­tor­ies, not­ably in Michigan and Ohio, of top­pling Mitt Rom­ney.

His ad­visers read­ily ad­mit that the com­ing GOP field, however it takes shape, will present a far more daunt­ing chal­lenge. In just two years, an en­tire gen­er­a­tion of rising con­ser­vat­ive stars — in­clud­ing Marco Ru­bio, Scott Walk­er, Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Bobby Jin­dal — has leapfrogged San­tor­um in the pres­id­en­tial peck­ing or­der. But, these ad­visers ar­gue, the former sen­at­or is in a much stronger po­s­i­tion now, com­ing off his 2012 run — at least as strong a po­s­i­tion as any oth­er pro­spect­ive GOP con­tender.

“Does it mat­ter that The New York Times, The Wash­ing­ton Post, Politico, or Na­tion­al Journ­al doesn’t have him a top-tier guy go­ing in? I don’t think it both­ers him one bit,” said Dav­id Urb­an, a D.C.-based lob­by­ist and a close con­fid­ant of San­tor­um’s. “I think he’d rather un­der-prom­ise and over-de­liv­er.”

If he does run, San­tor­um’s ad­visers prom­ise that the mech­an­ics of his ef­fort will bear little re­semb­lance to his last out­ing. Then, his severely un­der­fun­ded out­fit barely ran a pro­fes­sion­al cam­paign. In­stead of a tra­di­tion­al bus, San­tor­um traveled across Iowa in rent­al cars (and later an ad­viser’s truck). His con­sult­ants couldn’t af­ford to con­duct polls. And while nobody on Team San­tor­um pre­dicts that the 2016 cam­paign would be a fin­an­cial jug­ger­naut, they’re con­vinced he will pull in more cash this time around — enough to avoid the Spartan ex­ist­ence of 2012 and to build an or­gan­iz­a­tion to rival their com­pet­it­ors’.

“Last time, we were hav­ing trouble get­ting our phone calls re­turned at this point,” said John Brabend­er, San­tor­um’s long­time polit­ic­al guru. “Now oth­er people are call­ing that are cred­ible con­sult­ants say­ing, “˜Hey, is there space for me on the cam­paign some­where?’ We did not have that in­terest last time.”

Those close to San­tor­um also point to Pat­ri­ot Voices, a polit­ic­al ad­vocacy or­gan­iz­a­tion he cre­ated after his exit from the 2012 primar­ies, as a kind of cam­paign-in-wait­ing. The group, ac­cord­ing to an ad­viser, has roughly 350 chapters of vo­lun­teers. And as CEO of the Dal­las-based Echo­Light Stu­di­os, a film com­pany, San­tor­um has also spent a lot of time in Texas — which, as one ad­viser know­ingly put it, is the “ATM of GOP polit­ics.”

Of course, or­gan­iz­a­tion will take San­tor­um only so far. It’s with his mes­saging that the avowed foe of abor­tion rights and same-sex mar­riage has tra­di­tion­ally run in­to trouble. San­tor­um briefly defined him­self as a work­ing-class Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate after his 2012 second-place fin­ish in Iowa (a state where he was later de­clared the vic­tor). But in the en­su­ing weeks, ques­tions over his con­ser­vat­ive views dogged him.

San­tor­um, who is Cath­ol­ic, prides him­self on not dodging ques­tions about his cul­tur­al be­liefs, and his ad­visers say he won’t avoid them in a fu­ture cam­paign, even to the det­ri­ment of his over­all cause. “I think the an­swer is … [to be] more pro­act­ive talk­ing about the oth­er things,” Brabend­er said.

But many Re­pub­lic­ans re­main con­vinced that no mat­ter how much en­thu­si­asm the Pennsylvani­an garners among primary voters, a San­tor­um nom­in­a­tion would yield a de­feat in Novem­ber 2016 un­like any the party has seen since Barry Gold­wa­ter’s in 1964. They cau­tion that elect­ab­il­ity should weigh heav­ily on Re­pub­lic­an primary voters, who could be stuck with at least four years of Hil­lary Clin­ton if the GOP doesn’t nom­in­ate the right can­did­ate.

By all ac­counts, this in­tern­al party hand-wringing mat­ters little to San­tor­um. If he runs, as many of those close to him ex­pect he will, he’ll start off yet again as the un­der­dog. For­tu­nately for San­tor­um, it’s a po­s­i­tion he’s com­fort­able hold­ing. P

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