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Rick Santorum stays the course

He's not out front, but the GOP presidential contender is plugging along in early-voting South Carolina.

October 02, 2011|Robin Abcarian
  • "Hopefully, people are recognizing that I've got something to say," said the former senator, who placed fourth in Iowa and Florida straw polls.
"Hopefully, people are recognizing that I've got something… (Mark Wilson, Getty Images )

ANDERSON, S.C. — Rick Santorum hasn't won any straw polls. When it comes to fundraising, he's the poor kid on the block. And unlike former pizza executive Herman Cain or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, no one has ever described him as "the flavor of the month."

But here, in the conservative heart of a conservative state, some have embraced the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania as the tortoise in a very long race for the Republican presidential nomination.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, October 05, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Rick Santorum: An article in the Oct. 2 Section A about Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said he had not won any straw polls. In fact, he won a straw poll in South Carolina in May and one in Pennsylvania, his home state, in September.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, October 09, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Rick Santorum: An article in the Oct. 2 Section A about Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said that he had not won any straw polls. Santorum won a straw poll in South Carolina in May and one in Pennsylvania, his home state, in September.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, January 08, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 70 words Type of Material: Correction
Rick Santorum: An article in the Jan. 7 Section A about the New Hampshire primary reported that GOP candidate Rick Santorum said in 2005 that gay marriage is no different from "man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be." He said this in an interview with the Associated Press in 2003. A Los Angeles Times article on Oct. 2, 2011, also gave the incorrect 2005 date.

While the ground shifts for those in the top tier, Santorum plods over hill and dale, spending almost all of his time and what little money he has in the early-voting states, turning in reliably pugnacious performances in debates (when he gets to speak), and finishing what pundits described as a "surprising" fourth both in August at the Iowa straw poll and Sept. 24 in the Florida straw poll.

"Hopefully, people are recognizing that I've got something to say," said Santorum, 53, between bites of salad and chili in a nearly empty Chili's Grill & Bar here before a scheduled visit to a chicken restaurant across the street. "In the first Fox debate, they asked everybody one question and then they didn't ask me anything for 45 minutes. Like I was a potted plant. It was very frustrating."

Half an hour later, sipping a peach milkshake at the Chick-fil-A here, Santorum surprised customer Amy Oglesby, handing her a soft drink at the drive-through window.

"That's awesome," said Oglesby, 30. "But I don't vote."

About 20 people had gathered to hear Santorum, who has not held office since he was trounced in his 2006 bid for a third Senate term. Most, like Susan Aiken, a Republican committeewoman who works for U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), seem to be undecided.

"What Santorum brings to the table that will play well in the South is he's a social conservative," Aiken said.

But all of the GOP candidates are social conservatives, said South Carolina political strategist Warren Tompkins, and this election will be about jobs and the economy, areas where Santorum is not particularly distinguished. Also, Tompkins said, a whiff of loss still attaches to Santorum.

"When you've been thrown out of office by the people of your own state, that kind of puts you in a weakened position," Tompkins said.

Questions for Santorum at the Chick-fil-A did not touch on either social issues or jobs. People asked about global warming, healthcare reform and how to balance the federal budget while fighting two expensive wars. One man suggested that Americans were experiencing a kind of mass emotional depression and asked, "How are you going to inspire America to be great again?"

The question prompted a disquisition by the candidate on Ronald Reagan, American exceptionalism, freedom, limited government and rights endowed by the creator. It was vintage Santorum -- complex thoughts delivered in whole sentences studded with historical allusions.

In the back, Alexia Newman watched appreciatively. "He's winsome," said Newman, 51, who spearheads Santorum's outreach effort to evangelical pastors and other social conservatives in the state.

"I've watched his career from the time he was in the Congress and the Senate, watched him debate Barbara Boxer, and have always greatly respected him," said Newman, executive director of a crisis pregnancy center in Spartanburg.

A devout Catholic who adheres to the church's official teaching authority, Santorum has a religious hurdle in the Bible Belt. "It's an issue for some," Newman said.

Santorum's recent debate performances -- especially the most recent, in which he took on Texas Gov. Rick Perry over immigration -- have made Newman's job easier.

"Since that debate, I've gotten tons of calls," Newman said. "To me, he's the best communicator on the stage."

Many South Carolina Republicans, Newman said, have a lingering bad taste about the party's 2008 nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and are urging one another to wait as long as possible before endorsing a candidate. "I've gotten calls like everybody else has been getting: 'Keep your powder dry,' " she said. "Why should I keep my powder dry? This is the guy I want to be president."

Still, the campaign's fundraising remains anemic.

"When people get a chance to meet him, they come away supporters," said Santorum's state chairman, J. Gresham Barrett. "A lot of it is the media -- they don't see you as a viable candidate unless you have money, and we don't have it."

Ideologically, Santorum is at home on the far right of the Republican spectrum.

In May, after McCain condemned waterboarding as torture, Santorum suggested that McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, "doesn't understand how enhanced interrogation works."

President Obama, he said, threw former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak "under the bus" when the dictator was deposed.

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