The Santorum Factor

Rick Santorum is running for president in 2012. His homeschooled children look forward to an honest debate with the Palin family.

Rick Santorum is running for president in 2012. His homeschooled children look forward to an honest debate with the Palin family.

Having already delivered speeches to conservative groups in the key GOP primary states of Michigan and Iowa, and with plans to speak at a fundraiser for a Republican gubernatorial candidate in South Carolina on December 8, former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania appears to be testing the waters for a 2012 Republican presidential primary bid. Though Santorum has publicly sidestepped questions about his intentions, his friend and political adviser, Deal Hudson, told me that Santorum has informed his closest associates that he is very likely to declare his candidacy.

“[Santorum] said he was not considering running a few months ago,” Hudson said, “but he has grown so concerned about the direction [President Barack] Obama is taking the country that he told me he wants to get involved.”

Hudson, who has advised President George W. Bush and Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain on Catholic issues, and who maintains close ties to leaders of the evangelical right, told me Santorum has become preoccupied with issues of national security. “He believes that Obama is weak on the Muslim threat and he is convinced that it’s going to turn around and bite him badly,” Hudson said.

While Santorum’s recent speeches and editorials are filled with warnings about the danger of Iran and the sinister motives of Muslims, his two terms in the Senate were defined by his activism on culture-war issues like abortion. In 2001, Santorum attempted and failed to slip an amendment into the No Child Left Behind bill that would have required public schools to teach “intelligent design” and familiarize students with criticism of the theory of evolution. Four years later, he became the only senator to travel to Florida and position himself by the bedside of the clinically brain-dead Terri Schiavo. In vowing to block efforts to remove Schiavo’s feeding tube, he compared her to “someone with the condition of cerebral palsy.”

Santorum complemented his activism with an almost unremitting stream of extreme statements. In an interview with the AP, for example, he compared homosexuality to “man-on-dog” sex, prompting the female reporter to pleaded, “I’m freaking out here!” In 2005, as he geared up for his reelection campaign, Santorum blamed the Catholic church’s sexual-abuse scandal on the “academic, political, and cultural liberalism” of Boston. Comments like these, along with the denunciations of feminism and single motherhood that riddle the pages of his book-length culture-war manifesto, It Takes a Family, may call into question Santorum’s viability in a general election. Yet in Republican primaries dominated by the Christian right and tea party activists, his strident streak could prove beneficial to him.

Santorum was ousted from the Senate in 2006 by Robert Casey Jr., the son of one of Pennsylvania’s most beloved Democratic politicians. Like his father, Casey took an antiabortion position, neutralizing Santorum’s appeal among swing blue-collar Catholic voters who often turn Pennsylvania elections. As Casey’s lead widened, Santorum suddenly lashed at his opponent for failing to recognize the threat of “Islamic fascism,” warning that a Democratic takeover of Congress would place America at the mercy of Muslim terrorists. Santorum’s invocations of shadowy foreign enemies failed to resonate with economically struggling Rust Belt voters and added another layer to his image as a frothing extremist. In the end, he lost by the largest margin of any incumbent senator since 1980: 59-41 percent.

Since his defeat, Santorum has cooled his heels at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative Washington think tank that has provided him with his own “Program to Protect America’s Freedom.” The project intends to “identify, study, and heighten awareness of the threats to America and the West.” But its Web site provides scant evidence of any original research or policy papers—most, if not all, of the publications it has released are brief editorials signed by Santorum. If anything, the program is a vehicle for advancing Santorum’s ambition, providing him with the luster of intellectual seriousness and opportunity to claim national-security credentials.

Despite Santorum’s conservative record, he can expect a host of challenges if he enters the 2012 Republican primary. First, Santorum could face a backlash from his 2004 endorsement for reelection of his fellow Pennsylvanian Senator Arlen Specter, a moderate Republican who switched parties this year. Back then, Specter was running against then-Rep. Pat Toomey, an insurgent candidate of the far-right. After losing the primary race, Toomey was installed as president of the Club for Growth, a Wall Street-funded conservative group that has bankrolled the tea party movement and boosted several right-wing candidates in primaries against moderate Republicans. Though Toomey has now left the group to run for the Senate in 2010, he remains an even more influential figure among the party’s grassroots with access to loads of cash—a man few Republicans want to antagonize.

The presence of Sarah Palin in the 2012 race would also present significant problems for Santorum. Were she to declare her candidacy, Santorum would find himself in a contest for the right wing of the party against the most popular, most nationally recognized icon of the right. He himself is on record praising her during last year’s campaign. And in September of this year he said he would read her book.

If he attacked Palin in a debate, Santorum would risk becoming identified as one of her perceived persecutors—a Republican version of Katie Couric. Then again, with his pretensions to intellectualism and dog-whistle references to Catholic-right concepts like “subsidiarity,” Santorum could appeal to conservative males repelled by Palin’s winking brand of evangelical populism.

The only other potential candidate capable of competing with Santorum for the heart of the right-wing base is former Republican presidential candidate and Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. Though a parade of pundits pronounced Huckabee politically dead as soon as the cop killer whose clemency he recommended, Maurice Clemmons, was shot to death last week, the conventional wisdom may be wrong. Indeed, Huckabee has already triumphed over a similar, and arguably more damaging, controversy.

During the 2008 Iowa Republican primary, Huckabee came under a withering attack from Mitt Romney for convincing the Arkansas parole board to release Wayne Dumond, a convicted rapist who converted to evangelical Christianity in prison. Romney attempted to seize on the snafu through a barrage of ads detailing Dumond’s conviction for the rape and murder of a woman after Huckabee secured his freedom in 1996. But Huckabee’s background as an ordained Baptist minister enabled him to mobilize Christian-right forces behind his candidacy, neutralizing Romney’s attacks and earning a decisive victory in the state that effectively ended Romney’s campaign. With strong residual support in Iowa, Huckabee might be impervious to a similar ad blitz about his support for the commutation of Clemmons’ sentence.

Whether or not Huckabee and Palin declare, according to Hudson, Santorum would play a disruptive role in the 2012 primary. If establishment candidates like Romney or Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty fixate on the economy, Santorum would seek his opening by harping on social issues like abortion and invoking “the Muslim threat.”

“Anybody that goes out there in the Republican primary and tries to downplay social issues because of the economic meltdown is not gonna get away with it,” Hudson declared. “These are true believers and true believers don’t get thrown off track by unemployment and all that. If they do something like that, I would not be surprised if Santorum became a factor.”

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