Rick Santorum, Reincarnated

Santorum’s team wants to cast him as a working-class champion, but first they have to shut him up.

This image can only be used with the Alex Roarty piece that originally ran in the 4/25/2015 issue of National Journal magazine. Rick Santorum, former senator of Pennsylvania, pauses while speaking during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, U.S., on Friday, Feb. 27, 2015. The 42nd annual CPAC, which runs until Feb. 28, features most of the potential Republican candidates for president, from Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina to Jeb Bush and Scott Walker.
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Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
April 24, 2015, 1 a.m.

Rick San­tor­um is in the mood to cri­ti­cize Re­pub­lic­ans. Stand­ing be­hind a lectern, without a pre­pared speech, the suit-clad can­did­ate de­liv­ers a riff about the GOP’s in­ab­il­ity to con­nect with work­ing-class voters. Prom­ises of tax cuts and bal­anced budgets alone won’t win the pres­id­ency any­more, he tells a mostly full hotel ball­room of older, white Pennsylvania Re­pub­lic­ans.

“We’re tired, and we’re old, and it’s not work­ing,” the White House wan­nabe says, as the at­tendees nod in ap­prov­al. “And the prob­lem is Amer­ica is dif­fer­ent; it’s a dif­fer­ent coun­try. The prob­lems aren’t the same as the ones that con­fron­ted Ron­ald Re­agan.”

No talk of par­tial-birth abor­tions. No de­noun­cing con­tra­cep­tion. He doesn’t men­tion sod­omy, not even once. And if his polit­ic­al ad­visers get their way, this is the only Rick San­tor­um we’ll see dur­ing this 2016 con­test.

(RE­LATED: At Iowa Faith Sum­mit, For­eign Policy Dom­in­ates)

San­tor­um’s second try for the pres­id­ency, his team thinks, will de­pend on voters be­liev­ing he is a fight­er for blue-col­lar Amer­ica and for­get­ting that he ac­tu­ally likes spout­ing off about so­cial is­sues. So his circle has craf­ted a strategy meant not so much to rebrand him but to bring him back to be­ing the pop­u­list chal­lenger who first won of­fice 25 years ago.

San­tor­um’s second try for the pres­id­ency, his team thinks, will de­pend on voters be­liev­ing he is a fight­er for blue-col­lar Amer­ica and for­get­ting that he ac­tu­ally likes spout­ing off about so­cial is­sues.

It’s a smart strategy, if it works. Since the days of Bill Clin­ton, the Re­pub­lic­an Party has im­proved its take of the work­ing-class vote. In fact, white men without a col­lege de­gree are now among the most re­li­able voters for the Re­pub­lic­an Party. A mes­sage aimed at them — something Mitt Rom­ney struggled to craft in 2012 — could help in both a primary and gen­er­al elec­tion. And for an un­der­dog like San­tor­um, it might prove the dif­fer­en­ti­at­or he needs to sep­ar­ate him­self from a pack of bet­ter-fun­ded and more highly re­garded rivals.

There’s just one prob­lem: San­tor­um likes to talk, and he likes to talk about things de­cidedly off mes­sage. In­deed, San­tor­um didn’t make news last week in that hotel ball­room by talk­ing about Ron­ald Re­agan. He made news when, as a guest on Hugh He­witt’s con­ser­vat­ive ra­dio show, he said he wouldn’t at­tend the wed­ding of a loved one who was gay due to his re­li­gious con­vic­tions. The com­ment drew grim­aces from the former sen­at­or’s ad­visers. For a can­did­ate once best-known for sup­port­ing laws that out­lawed sod­omy — and the swift and pub­lic back­lash it drew from gay-rights sup­port­ers — it was an all-too-fa­mil­i­ar script.

(RE­LATED: Rick San­tor­um on IS­IS: “Bomb Them Back to the Sev­enth Cen­tury”)

The biggest obstacle to San­tor­um trans­form­ing his im­age is San­tor­um. His con­tro­ver­sial be­liefs on so­cial is­sues com­bined with his com­bat­ive and can­did dis­pos­i­tion yields an au­then­ti­city oth­ers lack, but it also gen­er­ates at­ten­tion his team doesn’t want.

“We un­der­stand the real­ity that he’s a war­ri­or on those is­sues and not afraid to talk about them,” says John Brabend­er, San­tor­um’s long­time polit­ic­al guru. “So of­ten he’s the go-to guy on them. The para­dox is it takes away from cov­er­age on things that are ex­tremely im­port­ant. Stra­tegic­ally, there’s a much more con­cer­ted ef­fort to mak­ing sure that doesn’t hap­pen this cycle.”

San­tor­um’s fo­cus on blue-col­lar voters isn’t com­pletely fresh. His last pres­id­en­tial run, which landed him second in the GOP field, in­cluded a work­ing-class theme, most not­ably in his speech after the Iowa caucuses, when he in­voked his im­mig­rant her­it­age. He fol­lowed that bid with a 2014 book titled Blue Col­lar Con­ser­vat­ives.

His team is build­ing from there, with ad­visers draft­ing a three-part strategy — agenda, per­son­al bio­graphy, and mes­sage — that they think can make him the choice of voters turned off by more well-heeled con­tenders.

Already, San­tor­um has a plat­form that stands out from his rivals. He’s the only one in the pack, for ex­ample, who has pro­posed rais­ing the min­im­um wage and re­du­cing not just il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion, but leg­al im­mig­ra­tion. “[It] is des­troy­ing op­por­tun­ity for lower- and middle-in­come work­ers by flood­ing this na­tion with both leg­al and il­leg­al im­mig­rants who are al­most all un­skilled,” he said last week. Plus, the can­did­ate will soon re­lease an eco­nom­ic and tax plan that Brabend­er says will fo­cus on wage stag­na­tion and al­leged tax ab­uses by cor­por­ate Amer­ica.

(RE­LATED: Can Re­pub­lic­ans Have It All on Ir­an?)

This im­age of a pop­u­list re­former, his friends say, is the real San­tor­um. It’s cer­tainly who he was when he entered Con­gress as a 32-year-old nobody who pulled off an im­prob­able up­set over an en­trenched Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bent. In that cam­paign, he ran hard against a con­gres­sion­al pay-raise and preached em­pathy for uni­on work­ers who lived in the state’s eco­nom­ic­ally stag­nant west­ern half, along the Mon Val­ley. “He had the heart of old blue-col­lar Pennsylvania in his dis­trict,” says Dav­id Patti, a friend of San­tor­um’s since they were both state gov­ern­ment staffers in the 1980s and who now serves as pres­id­ent and CEO of the Pennsylvania Busi­ness Coun­cil. “The area with steel mills that got hit hard in the ‘70s and ‘80s.”

It wasn’t un­til later in his ca­reer, after he won an­oth­er sur­pris­ing vic­tory over a Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bent in 1994 to be­come a sen­at­or, that he gradu­ally earned a repu­ta­tion as a di­vis­ive fig­ure on so­cial is­sues. Some ad­visers point to his Sen­ate floor spar­ring with Bar­bara Box­er and Hil­lary Clin­ton on le­gis­la­tion to end par­tial-birth abor­tions as the mo­ment his repu­ta­tion changed.

Wherever it began, his repu­ta­tion was ce­men­ted dur­ing a 2003 in­ter­view with the As­so­ci­ated Press, when he com­pared gay mar­riage to “man-on-dog” wed­dings. Years later, in the run-up to his reelec­tion cam­paign for the Sen­ate, he wrote in his book that wo­men would be hap­pi­er stay­ing at home than en­ter­ing the work­force. San­tor­um lost his reelec­tion by nearly 20 points in 2006.

San­tor­um tried to shed the memor­ies of the de­feat by ret­ro­fit­ting his mes­sage in 2012, and the pop­u­list themes he struck com­bined with his built-in sup­port among evan­gel­ic­als were enough to win the Iowa caucuses. But his old repu­ta­tion haunted him in New Hamp­shire, where the can­did­ate wasn’t con­fron­ted with so­cial-is­sues ques­tions as much as he seemed to seek them out. “We’d go to col­leges in New Hamp­shire, and there’d be an older wo­man with ros­ary beads in the front row,” says one San­tor­um ad­viser. “And be­hind her a young per­son with a marijuana-leaf t-shirt, and even though both had their hands raised, San­tor­um would call on the young­er per­son for a ques­tion. And of course she’d ask about gay mar­riage, and he’d give his an­swer.”

(RE­LATED: Is the Po­lice-Bru­tal­ity De­bate Help­ing Re­pub­lic­ans?)

San­tor­um fin­ished fifth, a mo­mentum-crush­ing de­feat that a late surge of vic­tor­ies couldn’t over­come.

For this pres­id­en­tial con­test to un­fold dif­fer­ently, San­tor­um needs to check his in­stincts at the door. He needs to stick to his eco­nom­ic policy pre­scrip­tions, em­brace his work­ing-class bio­graphy, and de­liv­er talk­ing points that work in the Rust Belt, not the Bible Belt. The sup­port he’ll re­ceive from evan­gel­ic­als is already baked in, his ad­visers say, and now he needs to ex­pand his co­ali­tion.

His al­lies say he knows it, but how he does it is an­oth­er is­sue.

San­tor­um’s ad­visers say they might try to lim­it his ac­cess to re­port­ers — re­flect­ing a be­lief with­in his team that this prob­lem is due at least in part to the me­dia’s de­sire to ask ques­tions, not their can­did­ate’s in­ab­il­ity to stop him­self from an­swer­ing in the most dam­aging way pos­sible. But avoid­ing the mics could dent San­tor­um’s pop­u­list cre­den­tials, says one cam­paign ad­viser, con­ced­ing they haven’t yet landed on a fix for San­tor­um’s mouth.

(RE­LATED: Re­pub­lic­an Law­makers Are Com­ing Around to the Idea of Po­lice Body Cam­er­as)

His team isn’t op­posed to work­ing the refs, either. Brabend­er sug­gests the me­dia’s “lazi­ness” can lead it to typecast can­did­ates. “In Rick’s case, [he’s] some­body who spent 12 years in the Sen­ate and four years in House. … There are all these dif­fer­ent ex­per­i­ences he has that people just don’t know,” he says. “It’s our re­spons­ib­il­ity as a cam­paign to tell people about it.”

But the odds are long that polit­ic­al re­port­ers will be pres­sured in­to go­ing easy on San­tor­um, something San­tor­um’s friends ac­know­ledge. They think his best and per­haps only hope is that he can simply be a bet­ter can­did­ate now. “Any­time you do things the first time, you look back and say, ‘I could have done this bet­ter or that bet­ter,‘“Š” says Jake Cor­man, an­oth­er long­time friend of San­tor­um’s who is now Sen­ate ma­jor­ity lead­er in Pennsylvania. “I think ex­per­i­ence run­ning last time will help him im­meas­ur­ably.”

(RE­LATED: Sign up for Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s TwentySix­teen news­let­ter)

When asked if the hot-blooded San­tor­um will choose to con­trol him­self, Cor­man laughs. “He clearly has the tal­ent and abil­ity to do that,” Cor­man says. “We’ll see how the cam­paign goes.”

So far, he is. Back in that hotel ball­room in Camp Hill, San­tor­um’s speech is well-re­ceived. He earns ap­plause, a few stand­ing ova­tions, and a brief chant of “Run, Rick, Run.” And at the end, he works the room quickly be­fore dash­ing out to get home be­fore his daugh­ter’s prom be­gins. He stops be­side his car to let me ask one last ques­tion.

“Is it frus­trat­ing that people still want to refer to you as the so­cial-is­sue can­did­ate?” I ask.

“I don’t know, did I talk about so­cial is­sues at all in that speech?” he re­sponds.

No, he didn’t. And if he wants to win the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­a­tion, he’ll need to keep it that way.

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