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Rick Santorum's Rise: From 'Senator Slash' To Social-Studies Teacher (EXCLUSIVE)

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MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Rick Santorum's patient, open approach to campaigning -- as if he were a high school teacher conducting a town hall -- won him plaudits and votes in Iowa. It has not worked well in New Hampshire, but he told The Huffington Post in an interview Sunday that he will stick to it as he heads for South Carolina, his last and only chance to become the non-Romney conservative in the GOP race.

Super PACs for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) are going at it like Transformers, while Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and his allies try to torpedo one conservative candidate after another (first Texas Gov. Rick Perry, then Gingrich, then Santorum and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman) with their own independent spending attacks.

But former Sen. Santorum (R-Pa.) -- once known as "senator slash" for his cutting, nasty style when he was in Congress -- is still wary of harshly attacking his foes, and remains committed to trying to do open town halls with all-comers, diligent colloquies about his deeply-traditional stands on cultural issues, and sleeveless-sweater earnestness.

"In a funny way, it is almost like a C-SPAN campaign," Santorum told The Huffington Post. "That is what our hope is. The beautiful thing is, I've got to thank the people of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, because I have done close to 500 of these things. And I was not very good when I started, hopefully I can continue to improve."

Skeptics might say that Santorum had no choice but to take this approach because: 1) he had no money (no longer so much of a problem), 2) because his sometimes stridently-conservative views on social issues -- abortion, birth control and gay marriage in particular -- need careful and detailed justification, and 3) because his reputation as a senator was as one of the tougher and nastier attack dogs in the kennel.

But Santorum insisted that his transformation was genuine, and that his strategy was born of both a political and personal growth. He said that he had become a more tolerant public figure after his stinging defeat in his Senate race in 2006. And he and his friends and family add that his attitude toward combat had evolved as he and his wife dealt with the plight of their genetically handicapped three-year-old daughter.

A two-term senator from Pennsylvania, Santorum ran a nasty, accusatory campaign in 2006 -- a bad year for Republicans -- and was routed by 17 points in one of the worst losses on record for a senatorial incumbent.

"I'll tell you, losing does something to you," Santorum said. "It shows you who you are: arrogance and vanity, and all those things."

Santorum has publicly discussed the role of his daughter, Bella, in his personal life, but is sensitive to accusations that he is using her for story for political purposes. But those closest to him report him saying that she had changed his view of politics. "Having a disabled child, and seeing life in a very different way, has had a pretty big impact," Santorum has said privately. "I'm just as passionate, but I hope a little more understanding."

Whatever else has changed with Santorum, one thing has not: his work ethic. Having promised through aides to give an interview, he did so Sunday night at 12:30 a.m. -- less than two-hours after Saturday's debate in New Hampshire on ABC and less than eight hours before the next one, later Sunday morning on NBC.

Santorum sounded chipper, as though he didn't have a care in the world, and didn't need a lot of prep for the upcoming debate. "I'm fine," he said, "just finishing up a little post-game celebration." Actually, there wasn't much to celebrate.

Santorum has hoped for a strong finish in New Hampshire, but as Election Day approaches there seems little chance that he will finish in the top three. Unlike Iowa, there is no network of evangelical Power Pastors here for Santorum to impress, and to draw on. And while he has drawn some good crowds, many of them have been full of wary shoppers not sure they want a former senator who does not agree with the Supreme Court that there is a right of privacy in the Constitution.

But Santorum, to his credit, takes questions and gives long and detailed answers on these and other topics -- not necessarily an advantage here, but something he seems genuinely wedded to doing every day if he can.

At an event in Hollis, N.H., the other day, Santorum engaged in a long debate with a young audience member who questioned Santorum's refusal to recognize gay marriage. The discussion was long but civil.

Santorum said he had heard a lot of good feedback from it.

"I had people all over the country talking about that event and saying how amazing that event was," Santorum said. "They told me they were amazed at my demeanor talking with those people who disagreed with you. You had a civil discussion about really tough and heartfelt issues and boy, why isn't American politics like this any more?

"And I get that from all over the country. I got all kinds of feedback on our website and our Twitter and Facebook people saying that it really resonated with people. So I don't know, maybe you guys will start covering that."

"The town halls are a way for me to communicate an authentic vision that I hope the American public will embrace," Santorum said. "I don't know if you can be authentic if you are not out there being authentic."

But it's also possible that time is running out on that kind of campaign, both this season and maybe in the future. In South Carolina, in fact, Santorum is relying on a heavy TV buy to explain his story and his stands on the issues.

And C-SPAN doesn't take advertising.

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