02.05.11

Santorum: Don't Count Me Out

The strict conservative is less of an underdog in 2012 than he seems. In an interview with Shushannah Walshe, he takes on Palin and Romney, blasts Obama on Egypt, and explains how he can win.

Nine: that’s the number of trips former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has taken each to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. He’s relentlessly taking these non-campaign campaign trips in a year when other presidential candidates are avoiding getting on the stump. He doesn’t risk any awkward Granite State diner bump-ins that’s for sure, but he realizes that with lower name recognition than the other potential 2012-ers he needs to get a head start even if he isn’t 100 percent committed… yet.

“If you test the waters you have to get in and swim a little bit, it’s not just putting your toe in,” Santorum said in a phone interview with The Daily Beast. “The drop dead point for me is August 13th, which is the Iowa straw poll. Iowa for someone like me who is not considered the top of the list candidate that’s an important date. So if we are going to do this we will have to be in far enough in advance of that to put in a good effort to try finish hopefully in the top three.”

He may seem like a long shot, but unlike his potential rivals he already has well-regarded staffers in Iowa and New Hampshire including Mitt Romney’s Iowa political director in the 2008 primary. In a cycle where nobody wants to make the first move, Santorum is going for it. He also had quite a good week: he came in third in the fundraising race for the last part of 2010 behind Palin and Romney—and he also got a conservative love letter in the form of a glowing George Will column. Will says with Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin having a lot to lose by giving up their Fox News contracts, and Mike Pence deciding against a run, there is an opening in the field for a social conservative. He says that the GOP base is “feeling neglected and are looking for someone like Santorum.” Santorum joked saying, “it was just the truth,” but he is clearly buoyed by the week’s events (which included stops in the first in the South state of South Carolina). But, how can someone who got ousted in an 18 point shellacking in 2006 really think they have a chance at becoming president of the United States?

“I think we can elect a conservative when 40 percent of the population identifies themselves as conservative.”

He’s got a few answers. First of all: it’s about playing in all three early states instead of picking and choosing between the more socially conservative Iowa and South Carolina and the more moderate and independent New Hampshire. He’s going for all three (something he says his rivals won’t do) and he wasn’t shy in saying why he will lead the pack even against more well known potential 2012-ers like Romney and Palin. At a time when others in the field are bending over backwards to praise the rivals they will be tearing apart in just a few short months, Santorum is pointing out the differences. Even though he endorsed Romney the last time around, he says Romney’s health-care plan in Massachusetts, which has been widely compared to President Obama’s, badly hurts him.

“I think with Gov. Romney the issue set has changed and changed dramatically and not to his advantage. I think the central issue in the domestic side is going to be the size and growth of government and the signature issue is Obamacare. I think the governor has serious problems on that issue,” Santorum said. “This is a much bigger negative than most other issues because I think it is the preeminent issue and we have the president himself saying he looked at Gov. Romney’s plan for a template of what he’s doing in Washington and that’s not a good place to be able to differentiate yourself.” (A request for response from the Romney camp went unanswered.)

And how will he gain traction against the other social conservative powerhouses that may enter the race like Palin and Huckabee? He says he won’t be waiting to see what they do before making his own decision, that’s for sure.

“I have a record. Gov. Palin’s record is not 16 years so I have a long consistent record of conservatism,” Santorum said. “I have a strong consistent record on all fronts. On national security, cultural, economic, fiscal, etc. and Gov. Huckabee doesn’t have a record on national security so what I’m saying is for someone who’s thinking about running for president I’m a much more known quantity and someone who is consistent.”

He’s known for his staunch conservative views: he famously took to the Senate floor to denounce what conservatives call “partial-birth abortion” using large pictures of fetuses in various stages of delivery to illustrate his point; he also believes intelligent design should be taught in schools and has voiced some extreme views on homosexuality. But, he says it’s his economic and national security experience he gained in the Senate and his work on what he calls Islamic fascism post-Senate ouster that will endear him to Republican voters over his potential competitors.

Over the course of the 30 minute interview, Santorum was friendly and jovial, but his voice got increasingly louder and more passionate and when the conversation turned to the situation in Egypt he was almost yelling sounding just like a general election candidate. He says President Obama’s response to the current Egypt crisis was “indecisive” and more broadly sees national security as a “diversion.”

“His focus is on trying to transform America into a country that is more like our Western European allies,” Santorum said, his voice getting louder. “The fact that they were caught blindsided by this, there is no excuse for that. Either we had a failure of intelligence again in not giving our chief executive some understanding of what was going on in a very important strategic place in the world. I don’t know I’m not privy to those briefings.”

Santorum stresses that the Obama administration did not back Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak strongly enough saying they “certainly have their faults no question,” but are a partner in the Middle East.

“We don’t know who all those people are in the streets,” Santorum said referring to the anti-Mubarak protestors. “What we do know is one of the strongest elements within the country is the Muslim Brotherhood and the last thing we want is another Iran situation.”

When I asked Santorum if he was in the Oval Office right now would he still back Mubarak when the pro-government protestors turned to violence as they did on Thursday, he said: “I think we need to look at making sure the regime that is in place after this regime is moved out is not going to be a radical Islamic regime. That’s the key.”

The former “ gang of seven” member with now-Speaker John Boehner entered the House when he was 32 years old before becoming a senator in 1995. Throughout his career, the conservative stalwart has said some high profile and eye brow raising comments that have dealt him a colossal amount of bad press and will surely be pointed out by his rivals on the campaign trail. One of the most extreme was when he equated homosexuality with bestiality and pedophilia.

Santorum’s media consultant for twenty years, John Brabender says his frankness is not all bad and instead it endears him to voters who are so used to polished and packaged candidates.

“Rick is very frank in his beliefs. Oftentimes people are not used to hearing such honesty and when you give such honesty oftentimes there’s a little bit of clean-up work to do afterwards,” Brabender said.

Just last month he grabbed headlines and criticism when he brought race into a conversation about abortion saying that Obama’s pro-choice stance is “almost remarkable for a black man.”

In our interview, he didn’t back down, and equated his belief that Jewish people, because of the Holocaust, are more vocal against genocide to why African Americans should be staunchly anti-abortion.

“Even though they are genetically human and alive in the womb they were going to be treated for the purposes of Roe vs. Wade as property, exactly how blacks in America were treated by the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case,” Santorum said. “I would think that the president and I would say yes generally speaking blacks should be more sensitive to a system that allows the court to determine personhood under the constitution.”

To anyone who thinks if Santorum does win the primary there’s no way he could win a general election because of comments like those, he begs to differ.

“If the most liberal man that’s ever been in office can get elected when 20 percent of the population identifies as liberal then I think we can elect a conservative when 40 percent of the population identifies themselves as conservative.”

Shushannah Walshe covers politics for The Daily Beast. She is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at the Fox News Channel from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.