Used to being an underdog, Santorum bets the house on '12 Iowa caucuses

This is the first in a series of profiles on Republicans who may run for president in 2012.

Rick Santorum is used to being an underdog.

In the spring of 1990, Santorum received a fax from his pollster that had a simple message: The upstart conservative didn’t stand a chance of capturing a seat in Congress that year.

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The Pennsylvania Republican, who was weighing a challenge to an entrenched incumbent in a Democratic district, was so cash-strapped that pollster Neil Newhouse agreed only to charge him for the cost of the calls.

The results of the poll were so bad that Newhouse didn’t even phone Santorum to relay the news. He faxed the report that showed him with just 6 percent name ID six months out from Election Day.

“He basically said, ‘Rick, I can put anybody’s name on a survey and get 7 or 8 percent,’ ” Santorum recalled. “ ‘That makes you two or three points below nobody.’ ”

That’s not that far a cry from where Santorum stands among the field of potential 2012 presidential hopefuls. He faces a crop of candidates who are better-known and likely to have deep fundraising pockets, and who will command much more press attention. 

“It’s been the same in every single race I’ve ever run,” said a smiling Santorum, noting with satisfaction that he won his House race two decades ago in what turned out to be one of the biggest upsets of the cycle. “People underestimate me. Can’t say it’s ever bothered me, though.”

Newhouse eventually ended up as Santorum’s pollster, but in 2012 he’s just another doubter. The veteran strategist has already signed on with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

In a GOP field that, along with Romney, could include former Govs. Sarah Palin (Alaska) and Mike Huckabee (Arkansas) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), the former senator would undoubtedly struggle for elbow room. 

But while Santorum can’t come close to challenging the name recognition of that group, he’s already taking his message and in-your-face style to the campaign trail.

Santorum has long been an overachiever. Four years after being elected to the House, he launched a successful bid for the Senate, being sworn in to the upper chamber at the age of 36.

During the 2008 GOP presidential primary, Santorum attracted headlines for saying he would support anyone but Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). He subsequently backed McCain in the general election and acknowledged that some Republicans told him he should have kept his mouth shut. 

At the time, Santorum wrote in an op-ed, “I’ve never been very good at that.”

As for Romney — the candidate he endorsed in the 2008 primary — Santorum doesn’t mince his words.

“I think it’s hard to see a path for him, given the ObamaCare issue,” he said, pointing out similarities between the Massachusetts healthcare plan touted by Romney and the one that was signed into law last year. “It’s just hard for me to see how he gets past that [in a Republican primary].”

Santorum was once among his party’s rising stars, ascending to the No. 3 position in the Republican Senate leadership.

He insists that before he planned his first trip to Iowa for a speech at Dubuque University in 2009, running for president had barely crossed his mind. His claim is believable, considering Santorum was less than three years removed from an 18-point trouncing at the hands of Democrat Bob Casey Jr., which decisively shattered his prominence in the party.

The reception in Iowa was more than Santorum had hoped for, and since then, he’s traveled to the state more times than any other rumored 2012 hopeful.

“I haven’t been discouraged since,” he said.

Any opening for Santorum would have to come from the evangelical conservative wing of the party’s base, particularly in Iowa. A staunch opponent of abortion and gay marriage, if Santorum can find a path to mobilizing and coalescing social conservatives in 2012, he could find a built-in base of support.

Much of that effort, though, is dependent on whether Huckabee, Palin or even Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) jumps in — all candidacies that would complicate Santorum’s calculus.

Still, Santorum’s message is not that of a one- or two-issue candidate. His time in Congress gives him a firm grasp on a range of matters. During an appearance on Greta Van Susteren’s show on Fox last year, Santorum highlighted the role he played in the passage of welfare reform. 

The 52-year-old recoils at the size of the deficit, derisively talks down President Obama’s economic policies and proclaims not a single provision of the healthcare law is worth saving. What riles him most is the president’s worldview, and it’s largely why he’s a good bet to throw his hat in the 2012 ring.

“One of the concerns I have with Obama is that he’s lost focus on who America is,” Santorum said. “Talking about the working class and the middle class: Since when do we have classes in America? There has been this huge moral argument going on here and we’ve just ignored it. We’ve accepted it, and we shouldn’t.”

On economic policy: “Obama’s engaged in a culture war. He’s pitting the rich against the poor.”

On healthcare: “What the president has done — and this is the typical left: ‘We know better, we’ll structure the marketplace, we’ll run it and it’ll be better than if people do it in the private sector.’ It’s a lie. It doesn’t work.”

On immigration: “If you want to come here to work and then send your money back home, I don’t want you. If you want to come here and impose sharia law, stay home. If you want to come here to be an American, then I want you.”

For Santorum, those types of statements are not just red meat for the base — although they work just fine for those purposes, too. He simply believes the country is headed down a disastrous path. That ethos, coupled with his conservative credentials, has Santorum optimistic that Republican primary voters will listen to what he has to say. 

As to the thornier question of whether he could actually capture the nomination in 2012, Santorum sounds encouraged enough to want to find out.

“Everything I’ve learned about presidential politics is that you have to do better than they think you’re gonna do,” he said. “If you beat expectations, you go to the next place on the game board. I can tell you, I wouldn’t still be doing this if I wasn’t encouraged by the reception we’ve been getting.”

Next week: Tim Pawlenty