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A.B. Stoddard: Santorum has a shot

Greg Nash

Sure, the GOP 2016 presidential field is wide open; the party is divided; so much has changed; and the Republicans need a Bigfoot to go up against Hillary Clinton, should she become the Democratic nominee.

But they have also made a habit of choosing their second-finisher the next time around, a tradition that helped Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney win the GOP nomination in 2008 and 2012, respectively. With all the breathless coverage of Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) and speculation over former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, it’s worth remembering the party’s latest second-finisher is former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.).

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Santorum is not a top choice among top donors, who are now praying Bush will run and still holding out hope that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie might be able to clear his name before the contest begins in earnest early next year.

But Santorum had a big donor all to himself in businessman Foster Friess in 2012. He actually won the Iowa caucuses and could have won the nomination if he didn’t say some stupid things about contraception right before the Michigan primary. And he’s running.

Just this week Santorum made intentional news. Of Paul, who is always in the news, Santorum bluntly said the freshman senator can’t win his party’s nomination. “The Republican Party is not a libertarian party. It is a conservative party. And it will nominate a conservative and not a libertarian,” Santorum said on CNN’s “Crossfire,” adding, “He’s not my leader; I can tell you that for sure.”

Just days before, Santorum crossed a huge partisan line by declaring his support for a minimum-wage increase. “This is one I don’t get. If the Republicans want to go out and say, ‘We’re against the minimum wage,’ then go out and make the argument to the American public, and 80-some percent of the American public believes we should have the minimum wage,” Santorum told Chuck Todd on MSNBC’s “The Daily Rundown.” This isn’t a small break with GOP orthodoxy, mind you. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), considered by far-right conservatives to be a leading “RINO squish,” once said he would “commit suicide before voting on a clean minimum-wage bill,” suggesting it would take a considerable concession to grease up an increase that he could consider supporting.

Santorum has written a new book, Blue Collar Conservatives, in which he argues his party has failed to speak to and address the needs of the 6 million Americans he estimates stayed home in 2012 because they wouldn’t vote for Romney but are natural Republicans. Santorum argues that in between talking about cutting taxes for upper-income Americans, cutting benefits and balancing the budget, Republicans aren’t reaching blue collar workers who want better jobs and don’t hear the GOP talking about policies to create them.

In the book, Santorum calls on the party to produce an uplifting agenda, including policies to grow manufacturing. But he is bucking the GOP by questioning free trade, and surprisingly is not talking up abortion and the social issues that have always defined him.

It’s clear Santorum will be running straight at establishment candidates in the 2016 presidential primaries. That’s you, Jeb and Chris. And having already earned his credentials with social conservatives, he would be the biggest threat to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. 

He is working hard on his rebrand, just like Texas Gov. Rick Perry. And he is likely to argue vigorously that Paul cannot win a general election. And unlike Paul and most of the other potential contenders — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Christie and Bush — Santorum has run for president before.
Don’t count him out.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.