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A surprising surge, followed by another "s" word: scrutiny

A few weeks ago it seemed that Rick Santorum couldn't pay the media to pay attention to his campaign. Now, having traversed the state of Iowa relentlessly for weeks on end, he has a very close and surprising second place finish, right behind the steady (if increasingly bruised) Mitt Romney:

Mitt Romney won the Iowa GOP caucus by just 8 votes, following an intense battle in which six GOP presidential candidates fought to the bitter end to make a connection with voters.

The race had shaped up as a two-way dead heat between Romney and Rick Santorum with Iowa GOP chairman Matt Strawn announcing Romney’s victory shortly after 1:30 a.m. CST. The final vote total for Romney was 30,015 to Santorum’s 30,007. Total votes cast: 122,255.

The AP reports:

Santorum's surge was built on a traditional Iowa caucus campaign: showing up often, meeting as many activists as possible, and paying attention to the state where precinct caucuses launch the presidential nominating season.

"This has been an incredible journey - all 99 counties, 381 town hall meetings, 36 Pizza Ranches," Santorum said.

The former senator from Pennsylvania based his showing on strong backing from the evangelicals and social conservatives who play an important role in the state's Republican politics. His victory speech reflected that sentiment.

There are a couple of big questions that come right to the fore. First, can Santorum keep his momentum and build on it as the focus turns quickly to the New Hampshire primary, which takes place in less than a week, on Tuesday, January 10th? The answer to that question will be based in many ways upon the answr to the second question, which is: what will (or won't) attract voters to Santorum rather than Romney, Ron Paul, Newt Gringrich (who was sailing strong just hours days weeks ago), and Company?

The general consensus is that Santorum's reputation as a social conservative is hard-earned and rock solid; there is no doubt about the former Pennsylvania Senator's pro-life beliefs, rooted in his open and oft-mentioned Catholic faith. For example, Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, lauds Santorum in a just-posted piece, writing that Santorum

is an excellent representative of his cause. Perhaps no politician in our national life has been so pointedly forced by circumstances to live up to his creed. ... The phrase “pro-life” is considered a tendentious label by supporters of abortion rights, but the Santorums show how apt it is. They have embraced life in all its glory and heartbreak, with a devotion borne of their ideals and a humility brought by their experience.

Lowry concludes by stating:

Santorum can come across like the Saturday Night Live version of Tim Tebow, who is so overeager when Jesus visits the Denver Broncos locker room that even his Lord and Savior asks him to “take it down a notch.” Santorum will always be a ripe political target. Few politicians, though, have his credibility as a champion of people who refuse to learn how to let go.

The challenge now, whatever you think of Santorum and his campaign, is the "s" word: scrutiny. Flying under the radar worked for Herman Cain and Rick Perry (and, I suppose, for Gingrich in a certain way), but only for a while. Some, such as The Washington Post's Dana Milbank, are outrightly dismissive:

The “Santorum surge” in recent days has little to do with the candidate himself and everything to do with the fact that he is the last man standing after voters discarded all the rest. There’s little time left to scrutinize Santorum before the Iowa vote — and in his case, that’s an exceedingly lucky thing. Given more time in the spotlight, he would reveal himself as a hard-edged Dan Quayle. ... I’ve covered Santorum on and off since his first run for Congress, in 1990, when I was a rookie reporter in Pittsburgh. Months ago, I predicted there would be such a Santorum surge in Iowa. But if and when he receives serious scrutiny, the surge will surely subside.

That's hardly unexpected, of course, and there will be plenty of hot, barbed, and otherwise intense (if not overly intelligent) rhetoric from the usual suspects over the next few days; I won't be surprised if Santorum is presented as a some sort of freakishly radical Fundamentalist who eschews modern technology and only listens to traditional hymns, sans drums or other suspect rhythms.

But this will miss what is a more substantive issue: Santorum's views about the role of the federal government (and what might rightly be called "statism") in, well, nearly everything. Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, writing on the NRO site, also uses the "s" word, but with a different tact and concern:

Now, however, Santorum’s record will come under much more intensive scrutiny — and it is a record that should give supporters of limited government considerable pause. ... There is no doubt that Santorum is deeply conservative on social issues. He is ardently anti-abortion, even in cases of rape and incest, and no one takes a stronger stand against gay rights. In fact, with his comparison of gay sex to “man on dog” relationships, Santorum seldom even makes a pretense of tolerance. While that sort of rhetoric may play well in Iowa pulpits, it will be far less well received elsewhere in the nation.

At the same time, on economic and size-of-government issues, Santorum’s record is much weaker. In fact, Eric Erickson of Red State refers to Santorum as a “pro-life statist.”

When Hillary Clinton was justly excoriated by conservatives for her book It Takes A Village, which advocated greater government involvement in our lives, Rick Santorum countered with his book, It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good, which advocated greater government involvement in our lives. Among the many government programs he supported: national service, publicly financed trust funds for children, community-investment incentives, and economic-literacy programs in “every school in America” (italics in original).

These two aspects of Santorum's approach are fairly readily evident in this 2005 Ignatius Insight interview with Santorum, who was fighting at the time to keep his seat in the Senate (he lost the November 2006 election to Democrat Bob Casey Jr.). For example:

IgnatiusInsight.com: Would you explain your anti-poverty agenda, including the Senate Republican Poverty Alleviation Agenda [info available here in PDF format]?

Sen. Santorum:
I fold the anti poverty agenda into this whole idea of strengthening the family because, to me, you’re going to deal with a lot of issues related to poverty if you can strengthen marriage and strengthen traditional families. If you look at the poverty rates among married couples, it’s in the low single digits. Whereas if you look at it among single head of households it’s four, five, or six times the rate it is among married households. The anti-poverty agenda includes things that are family-strengthening activities and marriage-promoting activities, but it goes beyond that.

In my book–the name of the book is It Takes a Family–I lay out a whole host of ideas that deal with different aspects of family life, economics as well as the culture, education, and social connectedness–all of which are important, particularly to those at the lower end of the economic strata. The reason is, they’re the ones who are most impacted by all of these macro-level ideas. So what we need to do is focus our overall policy in these areas on how we can affect them and the quality of their lives.

Read the entire interview to get a good sense of Santorum's perspective on a number of big issues, including health care and reforming Social Security. One massive change from seven years ago, of course, is the economy. Can Santorum outline  a plan for economic growth and stability that will appeal to a necessarily large swath of voters? Can he present himself as an outsider while he also presents himself as a candidate who can get things done because he has experience as an insider? How will that play with voters who are already starting to melt away from the increasingly annoyed, always potentially combustible Gingrich? Milbank once again uses the "s" word, but does so, I think, to make a reasonable point:

Scrutiny would also expose Santorum’s attachment to Washington process. His closing argument to Iowa voters moved from his cloture talk to mention of the Senate Appropriations Committee, earmarks, the House Judiciary Committee, the Syrian Accountability Act and a long discourse on Honduras. He grew particularly impassioned when telling his uncomprehending listeners that “we can take the 9th Circuit and divide it into two circuits.”

The only thing certain at this moment in time is that Romney continues to hold steady while many other candidates have burned bright, then either exploded (Cain) or fizzled (Perry) or both (Gingrich). Seeing what happens with Santorum will provide plenty of chatter, debate, and, yes, scrutiny in the days to come.

Ignatius Insight Interview with Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum | June 29, 2005

 
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Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight.
 
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