Santorum looks for staying power

Rick Santorum’s near victory in Iowa has bought his campaign a second look. Now he must prove he’s not Mike Huckabee 2.0.

Like the former Arkansas governor who emerged unexpectedly from the political backwoods to trounce the establishment candidates in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, Santorum has both serendipitous timing and the strength of the evangelical movement to thank for his dead-heat finish opposite Mitt Romney in Tuesday’s caucuses.

But if Santorum has his way, the parallels will stop there.

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Huckabee finished a distant third in New Hampshire’s primary with only 11 percent, and eventually faded from the race. The former governor was unable to score strong results outside the conservative Iowa caucuses and the South as he battled Romney and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who went on to become the eventual GOP nominee.

Santorum, a two-term senator from blue-state Pennsylvania, thinks he’s different.

Eager to stave off misgivings that his appeal is as limited as Huckabee’s was four years ago, Santorum in a victory speech in Iowa used his earlier Rust Belt victories as proof positive that voters of all stripes will gravitate to his working-class message.


“If we have someone who can go out to western Pennsylvania and Ohio and Michigan and Indiana and Wisconsin and Iowa and Missouri, and appeal to the voters that have been left behind by a Democratic Party that wants to make them dependent instead of valuing their work, we will win this election,” Santorum told supporters on Tuesday while the last of the caucus votes were still being tallied.

It was a reminder to a national audience now paying attention to Santorum that he won races in Pennsylvania territory that was inauspicious for a Republican — and won by sizable margins.

To prove he has staying power, and to establish a feasible path to the nomination, Santorum will have to have to prove he can assemble a solid ground game in states where he has spent far less time, and with far fewer resources, than Romney.

He must also make the argument that Republican voters are smart to place their money on a man with a biblical-infused approach to public policy. Some wonder whether that approach will resonate among Independent and centrist voters key to a general election win over President Obama.

And he must defend his record — including his stinging 18-point defeat as a Senate candidate in 2006 — against a level of scrutiny he has never before experienced.

Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, noted that although Santorum holds a few dozen endorsements from New Hampshire state lawmakers, almost all are from hardcore anti-abortion advocates, leaving him a limited base on which to build his support.

Cullen also notes that although Santorum had actually spent as much or more time than the other GOP contenders in New Hampshire during the first months of 2011, “he has nothing to show for it.”

He said Santorum has “almost no organization on the ground,” a situation reminiscent of Huckabee.

Santorum could have better luck in the Jan. 21 primaries in South Carolina, whose profile of voters more closely matches that in Iowa, and where Santorum has used some of the little money he raised in 2012 to develop as expansive a grassroots infrastructure as possible. But others, including Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, have done the same. A harsh defeat in New Hampshire could quash much of the good will granted to Santorum in the wake of his Iowa success.

“Time is his biggest enemy,” said Chris Ingram, a Republican strategist in Florida, whose primary contest will follow South Carolina’s on Jan. 31.

Another problem for Santorum is the perception that while he eagerly feeds the appetite of those seeking a more conservative alternative to Romney, he risks alienating centrist Republicans in a general election with his absolute opposition to abortion rights, gay marriage and other social issues.

“You’re looking at a completely different electorate in these other states, that are going to give him a harder look than just the ‘anti-Romney,’ ” Ingram said. “He’s got to be more than that.”

And as he gets a harder look from the media, Republican voters and his opponents in both parties, elements of Santorum’s record on fiscal issues are sure to draw intense scrutiny. As an emissary in Washington for Pennsylvania, a swing state where voters are rattled by those who are too far to either extreme, Santorum initially built his brand as a moderate.

Santorum has staunchly defended his use of earmarks, which were permitted when Santorum was in the Senate. He has also taken flak from fiscal conservatives over his support for continued governing spending and a vote for a Medicare prescription drug benefit that he later called a mistake.

The Club for Growth, a deep-pocketed group that supports fiscal conservatives, evaluated the records of all the candidates during the run-up to the primaries, and deemed that Santorum had “a mixed record and showed clear signs of varying his votes based on the election calendar.”

Polling in Iowa showed that despite his mixed record on spending, Santorum performed strongly among caucus-goers who identified as Tea Party members. But as the Tea Party has evolved and spread out to incorporate other causes, it has become less and less clear which specific principles unify all of its members.

Those who supported Santorum were likely those for whom strict social conservatism is still the top criteria, said Phil Kerpen, the vice president of policy for Americans for Prosperity, a Tea Party-backed free-market group.

“Santorum was in Senate leadership during the years Republicans lost their way on fiscal issues,” Kerpen said. “The question for him and voters is, did he learn the lesson of 2006?”

Santorum acknowledged on Wednesday that Romney had more money, more organization and a major head start in the Granite State.

"But we feel like we can go up there and compete," Santorum said on CNN. “New Hampshire is all about grass-roots politics, and we feel very good that we are going to climb that ladder, just like [in Iowa].”

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