By Mike Wereschagin
Sunday, August 15, 2010
BARRINGTON, N.H. In the cafeteria of a company tucked into the pine woods, Rick Santorum is writing his second act.
The company is Turbocam International, whose mission statement says it "exists to serve God and create wealth for its employees." About 50 workers listen as the former Pennsylvania senator tears into President Obama's administration. The last question comes from someone at the back of the room.
Are you running for president?
"I am considering it, and I'm going through the process right now," said Santorum, 52, who lives in Northern Virginia but still maintains a home in Penn Hills.
He visited 25 states this year, with three visits each to the Republican proving grounds of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the first states to vote in presidential primaries.
"I'm just seeing if this is something that's possible seeing whether, financially, it's possible, both from the standpoint of being able to run a campaign and from the standpoint of being able to feed my children," he said, traveling from the Turbocam event to a fundraiser in a rented, black Infiniti M35.
He and his wife Karen are the parents of seven children, one of whom, Isabella, 2, was born with Trisomy 18, a rare genetic disorder that delays development and causes heart defects and kidney problems. Ninety percent of children with the disorder die during their first year.
"I don't have the luxury of not working. I've got to work. I've got to get paid. So I've got to figure out how to do that and run for president."
As the torch-bearer for social and religious conservatives in Congress, Santorum railed against abortion and same-sex marriage, and for keeping alive Terri Schiavo, a Pennsylvania native who lived in Florida in a vegetative state for 15 years until her husband fought successfully to remove her feeding tube.
Santorum's knack for ideological warfare fueled his political rise. Santorum beat a seven-term incumbent in a heavily Democratic House district in 1990 and defeated another Democratic incumbent for his Senate seat in 1994. He became its third-ranking Republican in 2001.
His stridency made him a top target of Democrats, and helped Democratic Sen. Bob Casey Jr. beat him in 2006.
Santorum remains a culture warrior. He's a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington think tank dedicated to applying Judeo-Christian traditions to public policy issues. Santorum contributes to Fox News Channel and writes an opinion column for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
"If we don't stop what's happening in Washington in this election, America as we know it, is over, and you will be the generation that lost it," Santorum told a crowd of donors in New Hampshire. "I look at this opportunity as the greatest blessing that can be bestowed on any of us. You have a chance to do something great for your country."
He compares the health care overhaul to "government-run education."
"When the government took over the education of our children, what they did was create a direct pipeline to your wallet. And what's happened? We have, by all accounts, the worst public education system in the Western world. Our children are, in every category, at the very bottom, except for one: how they feel about themselves," Santorum said.
Iowa could prove difficult for him.
"Iowans love their schools," said David Hill, a longtime political consultant whose firm is polling for one Iowa Republican gubernatorial candidate. Socially conservative voters there, who propelled former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a pastor, to victory in their caucuses in 2008 now are more concerned with picking a candidate who can win a national race.
"The question is, is Rick Santorum a winner?" Hill said. "That might be more important than ideology."
Even supporters, including Allegheny County Republican Committee Chairman Jim Roddey, say Santorum might be too divisive to win a national race.
In a column published on the website Catholic Online in 2002, Santorum blamed the priest sexual abuse scandal on Massachusetts liberalism. In an interview with The Associated Press in 2003, he said legalizing gay sex would lead to legal polygamy and incest. On the Senate floor in 2005, he compared Democrats to Hitler.
"His positions in the last couple of years in the Senate, his campaign style, became very strident. He really moved away from the middle and was very far out there on the right," Roddey said. Then again, he said, "There were times when Richard Nixon was completely written off."
Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire say there's no clear favorite for 2012. The party tends toward established candidates, but former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney hasn't generated much passion. Santorum sees an opening.
"With (former GOP presidential nominee Sen. John) McCain out of the way, Romney seems to be the logical guy. He's pretty much indicated he's not going to try to run as Mr. Ultra-Conservative," Santorum said. "He's going to try to run as more of sort of a mainstream Republican, whatever that means."
It's Monday. Santorum spent one of the last four nights in his Northern Virginia home.
On Thursday and Friday, he campaigned in Colorado for Jane Norton, the GOP's establishment candidate for the Senate.
"She's in a primary against a guy who claims to be more conservative than her, so having me out there helps her," Santorum says. Norton stands a better chance than opponent Ken Buck of capturing the seat from Democrats in the fall, he said.
Buck allied himself with tea party groups in Colorado, but was caught on tape calling some of them "dumbasses" and, at a separate event, telling people they should vote for him because he isn't a woman.
"The guy's a little bit of a loose cannon, which is great because I think he's kind of self-destructing I hope," Santorum said.
Buck beat Norton 52 percent to 48 percent Tuesday.
Between Santorum's appearances for candidates, he talks to their donors and collects favors from the candidates' patrons.
New Hampshire's Executive Council, District 3 seat is an obscure office, even in this politically savvy state. But the Republican candidate is Chris Sununu. His father, John H. Sununu, was President George H.W. Bush's chief of staff, a former governor and perhaps the state's most powerful Republican. Two of the four GOP Senate candidates attended the fundraiser in a supporter's backyard. Santorum delivered the keynote address.
He told the crowd it was a "national tragedy" that Chris' older brother, John, lost his re-election in 2008 after serving one term in the Senate.
After Santorum's 20-minute speech, the most important vote in the yard remained uncommitted.
"We've got a lot of great Republicans coming through this state. Sen. Santorum is one of those great Republicans," said former Gov. Sununu.
Santorum continues to raise money. His political action committee, America's Foundation, took in more than $645,000 in donations in the first half of this year. Last year's donations totaled more than $1.2 million.
"I've never done this," Santorum says. He was the only Republican in his 1990 House race because no one thought the incumbent was vulnerable. He faced token opposition in 1994. "I've really never run in a primary."
Both times, he beat incumbent Democrats through relentless campaigning.
"The Republican base voter in presidential primaries is very conservative, and there will be a conservative candidate who will automatically carry a lot of that base. If (former Alaska) Gov. (Sarah) Palin decides to run, she'll take all the air out of the room, but if she doesn't, Rick Santorum could turn out to be that conservative candidate, and he could have a real chance," said Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat.
After leaving Colorado on Saturday morning, Santorum flew to Jackson, Wyo. Fresh off the plane, he drove to the golf course at Teton Pines, where the first tee faces the soaring, namesake peak of Grand Teton National Park. It was his second round of golf this year; he shot an 85.
"It's one of those things. I don't know why. I don't have to play very much to play well."