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Rick Santorum's presidential bid may hinge on persuading people he can win

The former GOP senator from Pennsylvania already is facing questions about his reelection loss in 2006, and the reasons behind it.

June 05, 2011|By Maeve Reston, Los Angeles Times
  • Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's biggest challenges in seeking the GOP nomination for president may be questions about his reelection loss in 2006 and whether he could win a national race.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's biggest challenges in… (Charlie Niebergall, Associated…)

Reporting from Davenport, Iowa — Standing at the edge of a backyard swimming pool at a Republican house party here, Rick Santorum tackled what may be the most vexing question he will face in his 2012 bid for the presidency.

How does a former senator who lost his 2006 reelection bid by 17 points — in the mighty swing state of Pennsylvania, no less — convince GOP voters that he could win a general election next year?

Speaking to about 60 voters fanned out across the lawn, Santorum argued that he has stayed true to his conservative principles no matter the political price, and he blamed his defeat on anger about the Iraq war and his ties to then-President George W. Bush. To gauge his electability, he insisted, voters should look to the improbable wins he notched earlier in his career, when he knocked off a series of Democratic incumbents.

But his first questioner — like many political analysts — seemed skeptical of that explanation, pressing him on what he learned from his loss in 2006.

"Not to run in a bad election year," Santorum quipped, then added: "Here's the lesson I learned: Don't be afraid of losing because it's not all that bad…. I needed some time away. I needed some time to be with my family and to do the things that fathers and husbands should do."

Four and a half years later, the senator best known for antagonizing liberal and moderate voters with his advocacy for banning abortion and gay marriage is back on the political scene, riding the circuit in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

As he formally announces his run Monday in Somerset County, Pa. — not far from where his grandfather worked in the coal mines — Santorum faces a steep climb to the nomination. He barely registers in national polls, and a new survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that less than half of Republican-leaning voters had heard of him, despite his two terms each in the House and Senate.

But beyond building name recognition, Santorum's biggest challenge may be demonstrating that he has a chance of winning. Although Santorum may benefit from the dominance of socially conservative voters in states like Iowa and South Carolina, other candidates — such as former Govs. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts — are expected to have broader appeal.

A number of Pennsylvania political analysts who have followed Santorum's political career said that he got lucky in his early races by drawing weak or underfunded opponents at a time when his strongly conservative views were not as well known.

Duquesne University law professor Joseph Sabino Mistick said Santorum clearly faced his toughest opponent in 2006 in state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., the son of Pennsylvania's former governor. But Santorum also lost conservative votes that year because he had backed the reelection bid two years earlier of Pennsylvania's other Republican senator, Arlen Specter. Supporting Specter, who would later become a Democrat, was "a mortal sin" to conservatives, Sabino Mistick said.

Both Sabino Mistick and Franklin & Marshall College professor G. Terry Madonna note that other 2006 voters were turned off by what some viewed as Santorum's hypocrisy. Santorum had won his first House race by challenging the residency of his Democratic opponent, but then he ran into similar problems of his own when members of a Pennsylvania school district balked at paying for some of his children to attend a cyber charter school while the family was living in Virginia. Santorum, who owned a three-bedroom house in the district and said his family returned from Virginia as often as his senatorial duties would allow, withdrew his children from the charter to home-school them.

Those controversies compounded the discomfort some moderate voters felt about Santorum's role as a spokesman for conservative social causes, Sabino Mistick said.

"You can wear out your welcome, and there were enough of these issues that accumulated that people were ready for a change," Sabino Mistick said.

Yet rather than brushing over his conservative crusades, Santorum casts them as a mark of political courage — telling crowds that when he stepped "out of the foxhole" to lead the charge on a late-term abortion bill in the 1990s, he was labeled an extremist, a characterization he views as unfair.

The Catholic father of seven does not bring up other headline-inducing incidents — like when he told the Associated Press that "if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to [gay] consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery." Or another instance, when he thrust himself into the much-publicized debate over removing life support for Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who was in a vegetative state.

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