Santorum eager for Romney to grant him role at Republican convention

Rick Santorum is organizing an event at this month’s Republican National Convention to rally conservatives in support of presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney, a key Santorum aide has told The Hill.

But Santorum has not yet received any promise from the Romney team, even in private, that he will be asked to deliver an address from the podium in Tampa.

The former Pennsylvania senator’s long-time senior strategist, John Brabender, warned that conservatives would be “quite disturbed” if they felt that Santorum was not accorded the prominence they believe he deserves at the quadrennial gathering. 

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One of Santorum’s key strengths is “galvanizing the support of conservatives within the party,” Brabender added. “To have him front and center would seem strategically like the right thing to do.”

The event in support of Romney has been put together “by Santorum on his own,” according to Brabender, making it a more personal endeavor than an appearance by the former senator under the aegis of another group. 

The event is scheduled to take place on the afternoon of Wednesday, Aug. 29, the day before Romney is set to officially become the Republican Party’s presidential nominee. 

With the event, Santorum is trying to bury any remaining ill-feeling from the hard-fought primary in which he was Romney’s most tenacious opponent. Santorum endorsed Romney in an email to supporters in May, about one month after suspending his bid.

The question of how to deal with Santorum and other erstwhile rivals, such as former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), is a tricky one in general for the Romney team.

But it is particularly acute in Santorum’s case. He displayed a deeper support then the other contenders in winning 11 contests during primary season. His forceful social conservatism makes him beloved among GOP grassroots supporters even as it also risks limiting his appeal to moderate, independent voters.

For Romney, the conundrum is how to pay due respect to Santorum and his supporters without pushing him into the spotlight to the point where he becomes a distraction. For Santorum, the dilemma is how to display loyalty to Romney while protecting his own staunchly conservative identity.

“He’s never going to be in the inner circle, but [the Romney team has] to deal with him somewhat gingerly, because of his connection to the Tea Party people and the social conservatives,” said Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania. “You have to treat him delicately, but I would be stunned if you are listening to him on Monday or Tuesday at 9 o’clock at night.”

Were such a scenario to unfold, it might echo Pat Buchanan’s infamous prime-time address to the 1992 Republican convention. Buchanan’s fierce oration, which has become known as the “culture war” speech, included the assertion that “there is a religious war going on in this country” and culminated in a plea for conservatives to “take back our cities and take back our culture and take back our country.” 

The speech was rapturously received in the convention hall, but even some Republicans feared that it alienated swing voters.

“I will do anything to help the Republican Party make social issues the main focus of their convention,” Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said with a laugh.

On occasions in the past where this had happened, he argued, “the Republican Party was talking to maybe 20 percent of the country and not connecting with the other 80 percent — and absolutely not connecting at all with the 5 percent who were going to determine the outcome of the election.”

Brabender, for his part, argued that Santorum demonstrated an appeal during the primaries that “transcended” that of past insurgent candidates like Buchanan, and instead resembled Ronald Reagan in his quest for the presidency.

Even if Santorum is allotted a speaking slot of some kind at the convention, he might prefer not to emphasize his social views alone. Advisers including Brabender and his former campaign communications director Hogan Gidley believe that Santorum was unfairly pigeonholed during the primaries because of his professions of religious faith.

Gidley said that while Santorum is “never going to relinquish nor should he relinquish” his social views, “more of the real Rick is going to come out” as time passes.

In June, Santorum founded a new PAC, Patriot Voices, which Brabender said already has about 350,000 members who have signed a pledge stating their support for its principles. Through the PAC, Santorum has also endorsed a number of candidates for office, including two House hopefuls and one Senate aspirant last Friday alone. 

Santorum’s endorsements were for Martha Zoller in Georgia’s 9th district, Nancy Cassis in Michigan’s 11th district and Wil Cardon in Arizona’s Senate race.

The PAC could also serve as a vehicle through which Santorum might make early preparations for a 2016 presidential run, should Romney lose in November.

His aides are, predictably, vague but far from downbeat about such a prospect.

“I don’t know where his head’s at now,” said Gidley. “Rick’s smart: He’s not going to rule something out only to have to reverse that later.” Gidley, who previously worked for former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.), said that both men were guided in their choices by prayer.

Irrespective of whether Santorum mounted any further bids for elected office, Gidley added, “He’s not going anywhere.”

When it comes to the more pressing matter of his role at the convention, however, Santorum is finding both support and dissent in unpredictable places.

Democratic strategist Paul Begala said in an email to The Hill that Santorum “has earned a spot on the podium. Romney ought not insult Santorum and his supporters by excluding him.”

But Ed Rollins, who at one point served as campaign manager for Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-Minn.) presidential bid, said that if he were organizing the convention, “I would not have any of the also-rans.”

Rollins added: “This needs to be Romney’s convention. He needs to be the star, which means all these other figures — Santorum, Newt Gingrich, whoever — have to play very minor roles.”

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