Rick Santorum, comeback kid?



Before we proceed with whatever comes next, attention shall first be paid to last week's announcement from Pennsylvania's most prominent conservative in exile, Rick Santorum.

Santorum said the other day: "I'm very concerned about the state of affairs in this country."

Translation to plain English: "I want to run for president in 2012. I'm looking at the other Republican candidates and I'm thinking, hey, why not me?"

Why not indeed. Thus guy might be worth watching.

Santorum is set to visit Iowa on October 1. Assuming he's not fixated on getting a good steak in Des Moines, there's only one reason why Santorum would be going to Iowa - just as other '12 Republican dreamers have already done. He's hitting all the stations of the cross - a guest appearance on Des Moines talk radio (where he can connect with the angry white listeners), a guest gig at a right-to-life luncheon (where he can connect with the kinds of conservative activists who typically dominate the Iowa GOP presidential caucuses, the first stop on the '12 primary trail), and a headlining role at a fundraiser sponsored by a conservative political action committee (you need lavish early money in order to map a presidential bid; as a character quipped in one of David Mamet's movies, "Everyone needs money! That's why they call it money!").

It might seem counter-intuitive to imagine Santorum as a top-tier '12 player, given the fact that in 2006 the voters of Pennsylvania heaved him out of the U.S. Senate with great force; his defeat by 18 percentage points was reportedly the worst for any incumbent senator in the last quarter century. But that was a general election race in a blue-trending state in a strong Democratic year. The political factors in a Republican presidential race are very different, starting with the fact that grassroots conservative activists, as always, will determine who gets the nod.

Which brings us to Santorum, and his tantalizing possibilities:

1. The conservative base adores him. The conservative base not only is pivotal in those Iowa caucuses, it is also pivotal in early-voting South Carolina. Much to the base's delight, Santorum remains uncompromisingly opposed to abortion, and any laws that would foster greater acceptance of gay people in the mainstream of life. (Santorum, in his infamous 2003 interview with the Associated Press, actually did not equate gay sex with "man on dog" sex; rather, he damned with faint praise, by conceding that gay sex "is not, you know, man on child, man on dog, whatever the case may be." He did contend, however, giving gays the right of privacy in their own homes was tantamount to condoning polygamy, incest, "the right to anything.")

Mark McKinnon, a former campaign strategist for George W. Bush, asserted the other day that Santorum is "very, very dangerous" because he is "anti-anything that smacks of progressive thinking, centrism, bipartisanship, or moderation in the Republican party." Which is precisely why the conservative base is passionate about Santorum.

2. Take a look at the rest of the likely Republican field, and it's clear why Santorum doesn't feel overmatched. Mitt Romney is still viewed by many conservatives as an opportunistic flip-flopper who shed his moderate beliefs in order to fit in. Tim Pawlenty, the current Minnesota governor who's giving up his job next year, is as dry as a Quaker Oats rice cake. Mike Huckabee, now a Fox News host, is widely viewed by pragmatic conservatives as unelectable. Newt Gingrich peaked in 1995. John Thune is a little-known senator from South Dakota. And Sarah Palin? She connects with the conservative id, as we know - but so can Santorum, who campaigns tenaciously and speaks just as passionately...plus, unlike Palin, he actually knows something about governance in Washington.

Indeed, Santorum recently took a not-so-veiled poke at Palin. After she quit her job as governor, he told Fox News that his lady at home, Mrs. Santorum, was very disappointed in Palin: "She felt like, number one, (quitting) hurt Sarah. And number two, it hurt women in politics." The resignation "looks like, you know, she couldn't take (the heat), and that's not a good thing for women." All told, Palin's decision to quit, "is going to hurt her."

He then hastened to add, of course, that "I'm speaking for my wife, not for me. I'm not telling you how I feel about it."

Translation, in plain English: "For me to boost my visceral appeal to the base, I've got to do everything I can to undercut Palin's visceral appeal, even if it means using my wife as a cut out."

3. Recognizing the truism that politics is always cyclical, Santorum anticipates that the 2010-2012 period might be akin to another 1994, when the angry right rose from the ashes of defeat in Bill Clinton's election and seized power again in Washington. Santorum is a '94 alumn, having ascended to the Senate during the conservative wave that year; he knows how to function in that environment, speaking to the right's resentments and fear of change. He road-tested a few themes last week on Fox News: "This is a very critical time...This is about America. This is about our traditions. This is about who we are as a people..there's something foundationally going on in Washington to rob America of its essence." (Not to be confused with Jack D. Ripper, the military commander in Dr. Strangelove, who feared that America was losing "the pruity and essence of our natural fluids.") And as a footloose ex-politician (encumbered primarily by commentating duties, including a twice-monthly Philadelphia Inquirer column), he has plenty of free time to woo the grassroots. 

Santorum does have a few potential liabilities, of course. Conservative voters in the early states might view him as a poster child for the party's Bush era downfall, too much a reminder of the recent failed past. He was, after all, the number-three senator in the Republican hierarchy that was swept from power. As such, he might be viewed as too much the Washington insider. If he looms as a viable threat, a rival could gin up some 30-second ads about how he home-schooled his kids in Virginia while the state of Pennsylvania paid the tab. Also, it might be a bit awkward for Santorum to go after Romney, given the fact that, a mere 20 months ago, Santorum was praising Romney as a great '08 candidate ("If you're a Republican in the broadest sense, there is only one place to go right now, and that's Mitt Romney").

And as Mark McKinnon rightly noted, there's also the question of whether Santorum's social intolerance and neoconservative hawkishness (on Iraq, even today; on refusing to talk to countries such as Iran and Syria) would alienate moderate swing voters and render him unelectable in a November race. Even though six years is an eternity in politics, could he as a presidential nominee really win Pennsylvania (which is crucial, in any GOP scenario) after having been so thoroughly trounced in his Senate re-election bid?

All these calculations would seem to be a long way off - nobody can rationally predict how Barack Obama and the economy will look on the eve of the next campaign - but Iowa has already played host to six Republican hopefuls seeking to plow early turf. Actually, make it five hopefuls; John Ensign, fresh from his casino mogul daddy paying off his mistress, will not be back. Given the competition, can you blame Santorum for dreaming?


Meanwhile, as the baby boomers bid farewell to the Woodstock anniversary (the festival ended 40 years ago today), here's a news item guaranteed to make them feel that the times, they are a' changing.