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Rick Santorum's new image worked in Iowa

Campaigning for president over the last year, he worked to transform himself from a sometimes prickly former senator into a picture of reasonableness and authenticity.

January 05, 2012|By Robin Abcarian, Los Angeles Times
  • Rick Santorum speaks at his caucus night rally in Johnson, Iowa.
Rick Santorum speaks at his caucus night rally in Johnson, Iowa. (Chris Carlson, Associated…)

Reporting from Des Moines — As a U.S. senator who ascended quickly into a leadership position, Rick Santorum was known for his sharp elbows, sharp rhetoric and partisan fighting style.

He said gay marriage could lead to bestiality. He blamed "radical feminism" for women going to work at the expense of children. He compared women seeking abortions unfavorably to slaveholders, saying that even they "did not have the unlimited right" to kill their slaves. It was a manner that eventually wore thin on Pennsylvania voters, who turned him out of office in 2006 with a resounding 18-point loss.

But in the last year, crisscrossing Iowa in a Dodge Ram pickup campaigning for president, the 53-year-old father of seven transformed his image. While the other Republican candidates were slashing at each other, he was a picture of reasonableness and authenticity.

He pointed out that he was so dedicated to getting legislation passed that he even cosponsored bills with Sen. Barbara Boxer. That is a name that can evoke the same kind of horror in conservative circles as Fidel Castro's. But this year, with the backdrop of a gridlocked Congress, the example sat well with Iowa voters.

Often, Santorum says that he alone among the GOP presidential hopefuls can connect with the blue-collar voters so necessary for a general election victory. After all, as he told Iowans on Tuesday at his post-election party, his grandfather was a Pennsylvania coal miner who escaped the fascism of Mussolini's Italy to make a new life for his family in America.

"I'll never forget the first time I saw someone who had died. It was my grandfather," Santorum said. "I knelt next to his coffin and all I could do was look at his hands. They were enormous hands, and all I could think of was: Those hands dug freedom for me."

Though he has sometimes been cranky when denied time on debate stages, Santorum has had nary an angry exchange with voters. He has even taken to wearing V-neck sweater vests to telegraph if not cuddliness, then something approaching avuncular.

"I'm not sure he's the most cuddly person in the world," said former South Carolina Rep. Gresham Barrett, Santorum's South Carolina chairman, who acknowledges that Santorum has made a concerted effort to change. "Rick Santorum is not the same person he was. He has matured; he has gotten better."

In Iowa, it was easy for Santorum to define, or redefine, himself. He spent months here, connecting in an intimate way with voters, who sometimes numbered fewer than a dozen, at the hundreds of town hall meetings he hosted. He no longer has the time for that, and doesn't have the money, at least not yet, for the private jets and lavish media buys that win elections in bigger states.

When he was relegated to the dreaded outside position on the debate stage, none of his opponents were paying attention. But coming within eight votes of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses will change that.

Santorum now sits squarely in the sights of voters, and perhaps more important, in the sights of his opponents, who are already framing their lines of attack: Santorum is a "big-government conservative" who supported initiatives of President George W. Bush that are deeply unpopular with conservatives, including the Medicare prescription drug benefit that created a new entitlement program, and the federal education program called No Child Left Behind.

Santorum apologized at town halls all over Iowa for his votes on Medicare and No Child Left Behind.

In town hall meetings, Iowans wanted to know why he supported Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, an abortion rights Republican, against a more conservative antiabortion opponent. Santorum's somewhat tortured explanation, that he was ensuring Republican votes for Supreme Court justices, has not rung true to many conservatives.

In Iowa, millions of dollars were spent by independent political action committees allied with Romney and by Texas Rep. Ron Paul's campaign to bring down former House Speaker Newt Gingrich when he suddenly surged in the polls.

Santorum might escape that fate in New Hampshire, where the field is expected to gang up on Romney, the front-runner in polls there. But when the campaign next moves to South Carolina and its large population of conservative Christian evangelicals, Santorum is bound to be a threat. There, to coin a phrase, he may learn what it feels like to get Gingriched.

He will likely be targeted for all of the federal dollars in the form of earmarks he brought to his home state. In the waning days of the Iowa campaign, Texas Gov. Rick Perry knocked Santorum over the practice, anathema to the tea party conservatives who think Romney is too moderate and Paul's views on foreign policy are dangerously isolationist.

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