With Santorum out in '08, conservatives up for grabs

Sen. Rick Santorum’s (R-Pa.) announcement that he does not intend to run for president in 2008 has provided an opening for other GOP candidates angling for a piece of the social-conservative vote.

In early polling, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has a considerable lead among top Republican presidential contenders, leaving limited breathing room for lesser-known contenders — including a few of Santorum’s GOP colleagues.

“Rick would’ve been a good candidate,” said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who noted Santorum’s strength with social conservatives. “He’d have been a very strong candidate in the Republican field.”

But with Santorum out, Brownback said, there are “not as many people lining up the same bloc of votes in a primary. It does open up a bloc of votes that would naturally have tended toward him.”

As for his own plans for 2008, Brownback said he continues to make “early travels” to key primary states, with recent visits to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. He said he will “continue to make calls and inquiries.”

But, he noted: “The final decision has not been made yet.”

Santorum, who is facing a tough reelection battle in 2006, wrote in an online chat on The Washington Post’s website Monday: “I have six children ages 4-14. And the idea of coming off a race of the intensity that I am engaged in at this point and turning around and running another two-year campaign for president is not something that I believe is in the best interest of my family.”

“I can’t speak for other politicians but I can speak for me, and my intention is not to run in 2008,” he added.

But Santorum spokesman Robert Traynham said he is not entirely convinced that his boss won’t change his mind, noting that Santorum has never ruled out a run categorically.

Several GOP senators commended Santorum’s move, noting that he has a tough election fight on his hands against state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr.

“I told him that was a good thing to do,” said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.). “He needs to focus on his leadership here and get reelected.”

In the past month, Santorum has handed Democrats plenty of fodder to use against him in his reelection campaign. He has been forced to defend several passages from his new book, It Takes a Family, which the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) has cited in fundraising appeals. The group blasted several of the book’s passages in a recently produced Web video.

DSCC Executive Director J.B. Poersch sent the video to supporters along with a fundraising letter yesterday. In the letter, Poersch said the book “proves that Santorum has a worldview wildly out of step with mainstream America.”

Santorum was also recently forced to defend comments made three years ago on a Catholic website where he wrote that liberal attitudes in Boston contributed to the pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church.

Santorum, who has trailed Casey by as much as 10 percentage points in some polls in a state carried by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), no doubt would have had trouble explaining a presidential candidacy to voters while simultaneously running for another six-year term in the Senate.

“Generally speaking, people don’t like you to be running for office and looking over their shoulder for the next one,” Lott said.

Santorum’s decision leaves him free to focus on his own reelection and, after that, if he wins, his effort to become party whip.

Of the remaining candidates who may make a run for the White House in 2008, Brownback shares the most similar ideological beliefs with Santorum. Two likely ’08 hopefuls, Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), will each need to make a concerted effort to reach out to socially conservative voters if they want to be competitive.
Brownback noted that a number of people who lacked the visibility of McCain or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) were making trips and appraisals of the 2008 race already.

“You have to come from further back to move forward,” McCain said.

A Zogby poll in June had McCain leading the GOP presidential field with 35 percent of the vote, with former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani close behind at 19 percent. Frist took 6 percent, Santorum 2 and Brownback 1.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) noted that Brownback, Frist and Allen had all held fundraisers in South Carolina, a key primary state, although he also hopes to bring Santorum to the state for a fundraiser to help his reelection effort.

“There’s a lot of trial balloons going up,” he said.

Allen declined to talk about any plans he may have regarding an ’08 bid.

“I’m focused on raising money for my own reelection,” he said.

During the recess, Allen plans to travel around Virginia in an RV part of the time and make fundraising trips to Colorado and Delaware.

“I hope he’s still with us in the Senate,” said Allen, who considers Santorum a strong GOP leader and close friend.