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06.06.11

Rick Santorum's Not So Bad After All

Former Bush and McCain strategist Mark McKinnon once called Rick Santorum “dangerous.” But as the former senator announces his 2012 presidential bid, McKinnon says there are a few things to admire about Santorum.

If you’re a hard-core conservative, tired of mealy mouthed politicians who two-step around questions, spin unrealistic promises, or flip-flop with the prevailing wind, then there is a presidential candidate for you. Although we mix together as well as holy water with burning oil, and have been in a few public fights before, I admire Rick Santorum—for his moxie. He is not a panderer. He believes deeply what he believes. And he is willing to take unpopular stands.

Many focus on Santorum’s 18-point loss in his 2006 Senate reelection race in Pennsylvania, but his campaign record is actually four victories, one defeat. He served two terms in the U.S. House and two terms in the U.S. Senate, defeating Democrat incumbents for each seat.

With his strong, vocal opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, and embryonic stem-cell research, it’s easy to dismiss him as “just” a social conservative. But his record in the Senate, where he held one of the top leadership positions among Republicans, included legislative work on national security, foreign policy, and entitlement programs. Santorum supported calls for a balanced budget amendment and was one of the few early voices calling for reform of the now nearly insolvent Social Security. And as a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center for the last four years, he has lectured on radical jihadism and the “Gathering Storm of the 21st Century.”

Santorum has an appealing personal story. His grandfather emigrated from Italy in search of freedom and labored in the coal mines of western Pennsylvania until he was 72. That ethic for hard work and persistence, even in the face of long odds, is a family trait; Santorum does not back down from a challenge. A devout Catholic, he and his wife have seven children, including a 3-year-old with special needs.

His unshakable belief in conservative values and American exceptionalism makes him an attractive candidate in the early primary states. Still, he’ll have to prove he is fighting not just for social conservatives but broader causes that matter to the entire GOP base.

Santorum will keep nipping at the heels of the race leaders, with a loud, plodding run—always to their outside right.

Santorum joins the six declared Republican candidates: Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Gary Johnson, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty, and Mitt Romney. Although the chances for this admitted plodder to win in the long run are slim, unless someone else connects more strongly with social conservatives in the first caucus state of Iowa, Santorum could gain some traction there. And with a win in Iowa, he gets to race another day. He’ll keep nipping at the heels of the race leaders, with a loud, plodding run—always to their outside right.

Electability Index

The top 10 factors, using a 40-chad scale (with a maximum of ★★★★ for each category).

1. Rationale for running: Protecting socially conservative principles. **

2. Emotional connection: Sometimes warm, sometimes wonky. **

3. Resonance/Relevancy of message: Burns hot with faithful. **

4. Message discipline: Unshakable principles; skilled communicator. Strong second at the first debate. ****

5. Candidate preparation: Knows his stuff. ****

Life experience: Family man; makes him who he is. **

7. Political/government experience: Solid 16 years, though has to overcome last loss. ****

8. Fundraising strength: Limited, but he’ll raise enough to keep gas in his tank. **

9. Base: Strong with social conservatives. ***

10. General election appeal: Very little. *

Total score: 26 out of 40

As vice chairman of Hill & Knowlton and Public Strategies, and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono. McKinnon is co-founder of No Labels and co-chair of Arts & Labs.