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Rick Santorum 2012 Campaign: Repeating Missteps Of The 2006 Calamity

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Rick Santorum campaigns for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
Rick Santorum campaigns for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

WASHINGTON -- Ryan Miner remembers watching a fat piece of sausage splatter with a thud against a picture of Sen. Rick Santorum adorning the side of the senator’s campaign RV.

It was fall 2006, and Miner, then a Santorum intern, was helping feed a group of Pittsburgh Steelers fans tailgating outside of Heinz Field. But it was a tough sell -- especially because the Santorum volunteers were peddling snacks and campaign literature to rowdy, buzzed hordes. The crowd eventually turned on the volunteers, and a weapon of choice was Polish.

"Fuck you, Rick Santorum!" Miner recalls the sausage-tosser shouting.

In short order, the tailgaters assailed the Santorum volunteers with whatever they could get their hands on: sausage, cookies, half-empty cups of beer, and beer cans.

"For the most part it was pretty unpleasant," recalls Bryan Nagy, who had joined his friend Miner for the event so he could get some free food. "A lot of booing. Some people would spit in the general direction of the bus."

The event was supposed to build camaraderie and sell Santorum as a beloved member of Steeler Nation. Yet, like much of that brutal 2006 campaign that ended Santorum's Senate career, it simply reinforced the impression that Santorum -- whom the electorate had come to regard as sanctimonious and out-of-touch -- played for the away team.

By that point, the dark-haired grandson of a steelworker had represented Pennsylvania for more than 15 years. But he was at the nadir of his popularity and it wasn’t clear to political analysts and other campaign observers whether voters ever truly liked him. After all, Santorum had lived most of his political career on the margins. He barely defeated entrenched incumbent Rep. Doug Walgren (D) in his first run for Congress in 1990. In 1994, he beat Sen. Harris Wofford, an establishment Democrat, by two percentage points during a terrible year for Democrats. He won re-election to the Senate easily in 2000.

But by 2006, the state had grown tired of the former Pittsburgh attorney and Penn State graduate. He would lose to Democrat Bob Casey by 18 percentage points -- the largest margin of defeat for an incumbent senator since 1980.

Now, as Santorum runs for the White House and heads into a Republican primary in the Keystone State in late-April, memories of that 2006 race -- much like the sausage launched at his RV -- loom for him and his team.

Forced to address Santorum's historic drubbing, his top advisers have argued that then-President George W. Bush’s unpopularity, coupled with voters’ dramatic turn against the Iraq war, made winning impossible.

"The entire loss [of support] was due to independents and Democrats, which tells you that its more environmental than anything else," John Brabender, Santorum’s longtime and current political guru recalls in an interview. "They were very, very angry at Bush. They were very angry at Washington, and Rick was in the leadership in Washington.”

Santorum insists he’s grown from the experience.

"It was a painful night, that night, in many respects, but it was a night that I felt that I needed to sort of reassess and take a good look at me and my family and being a husband and a father and take that responsibility a little bit differently and a little bit more seriously,” he said during a speech at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference outside Harrisburg last weekend.

Interviews with more than a dozen former aides, adversaries, and close observers of the ‘06 contest, however, show that important lessons -- about the need to stay on message, convey warmth to voters and appear less patronizing -- haven’t been learned at all. The senator who stumbled so badly six years ago, many say, is the same candidate now locked in a hotly-contested race for the Republican presidential nomination: pugnacious and unscripted, talented at retail politics, but often his own worst enemy.

“As you have seen in this campaign, Rick has a tendency to get off-message and say things that he believes, but things that better wisdom would have left unsaid,” former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) tells The Huffington Post. “The parallels [between the two races] are shockingly similar, shockingly similar.”

OFF THE DEEP END

It didn’t take long into the ‘06 campaign for Democrats to become convinced Santorum would lose.

Saul Shorr, a top adviser to Casey, says that he had reached that conclusion “by the end of 2005,” well before Bush or Iraq became major factors. Jay Reiff, Casey’s campaign manager, explains that by the turn of the year, the image of Santorum as a senator who had “really grabbed on to the ultra-right wing elements of his party” was firmly cemented.

One top Pennsylvania Democrat says it dawned on him during a 2003 opening event for the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia that Jon Stewart hosted. The "Daily Show" anchor thanked Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor who was then Homeland Security secretary, for protecting America's borders. Then Stewart thanked Santorum for protecting America from the rear.

“He’d become a caricature,” explains the Democrat, who requested anonymity out of wariness that he’d be endorsing a crude attack on someone he still considered a friend.

As early as September 2005, troubling signs emerged for Santorum's re-election. Penn, Schoen & Berland, the high-powered consulting firm, conducted three focus groups in Pennsylvania -- two in Pittsburgh and one in Johnstown -- on behalf of a Santorum Watchdog 527 group called The Lantern Project. Those interviewed were all identified either as "weak Democrats" or independents. The final focus group report, obtained by HuffPost, portrayed a skeptical electorate.

"None of these groups,” the consultants wrote, “had any great love for Senator Santorum."

The actual responses were painful. "He's a very arrogant person," said one Johnstown woman. Santorum's deepening religiosity troubled some. "I think he's going off the deep end," said one senior Pittsburgh woman.

"Give me my God. You can have your God, but it doesn't mean we have to take [his] God," said a blue-collar male in Pittsburgh.

These impressions had been fed by a variety of controversial statements and associations that Santorum had made during the preceding months and years. The senator was close to K Street lobbyists, and had angered conservatives with his support for fellow Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter (a moderate voice within the Republican Party before officially becoming a Democrat), even though he was portraying himself as a fiery cultural conservative.

In 2005, Santorum had gone to the bedside of a brain-damaged Terri Schiavo in the face of widespread public criticism of government intervention in the controversial case. Earlier, he had argued that Boston’s liberalism played a role in the Catholic Church's child sexual abuse scandal -- earning a rebuke from then-Gov. Mitt Romney, the man now besting Santorum for the Republican presidential nomination

Santorum had also written a book, "It Takes A Family: Conservatism and the Common Good," that would eventually help undermine his re-election ambitions. It portrayed him as a fearless culture warrior, painting the public school system as dangerous, inveighing about race and gay marriage in eyebrow-raising passages, and arguing that mothers benefit from staying at home.

“Santorum's loss in 2006 was so overwhelming that you can hardly attribute it to any single factor,” says Specter in an interview. “You have Santorum's views. When the people of Pennsylvania found out about them -- his attitude that women don't belong in the workplace, his Neanderthal view on contraception and the book he wrote about the gay rights, [his comments about] man-on-dog bestiality. ... The only thing he didn't do in his '06 campaign was attack Jefferson.”

LETTING RICK BE RICK

Santorum began the ‘06 campaign with a simple enough strategy, according to his campaign manager at the time, Vince Galko: draw stark contrasts between himself and Casey. He would emphasize his seniority in the Senate, arguing that being third in line in the GOP leadership meant a wealth of federal dollars for the state. Casey was blessed with a famous last name, Santorum would argue, but he'd be entering the Senate as a powerless freshman.

The Santorum campaign certainly enjoyed the benefits of seniority. Galko says the team raised tens of millions of dollars and shattered volunteer and door-knocking goals. But connecting with average voters was much harder.

"That message never resonated,” says Galko. “People didn't really care about the whole seniority thing.”

Instead, Santorum’s ties to D.C. proved toxic. The senator had won his first election in 1990 by pounding Walgren for his Virginia residency. As Santorum's ‘06 re-election campaign kicked into gear, those attacks became a liability.

Santorum’s kids were living in Virginia while his Pennsylvania school district paid $55,000 to reimburse that state for their education through the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School. Jon Delano, a political operative-turned television anchor in Pittsburgh, recalled that the arrangement dominated news coverage for weeks, with Santorum’s old foils revelling in the chance to call out hypocrisy.

“You know, what goes around, comes around,” Walgren told WTAE news in May 2006, adding later in the interview: "I know that he knows that that attack on me was something that he probably says to himself often, ‘Gee, here I am, I’m doing the same thing.’”

Santorum did not handle the school controversy calmly. He accused a Casey operative of illegally trespassing onto his Pennsylvania property to get information. The Casey campaign denied the charge, but Santorum wouldn't drop it. When a local reporter asked him what proof he had, he unintentionally acknowledged he didn't live Pennsylvania.

"I have proof that he says, that he claims that there was no furniture in there and that there were no blinds in the window," he told a reporter from KQV, a local radio station, about his Pennsylvania home, according to a transcript. "You cannot know that unless you’re looking in the window."

Though Santorum withdrew his kids from school in Virginia, he refused to acknowledge wrongdoing, airing two separate ads during the fall of ‘06 -- narrated by his wife and children -- that pushed the idea that his residency was out of bounds as a campaign issue. But it wasn’t until later in 2006 that the senator finally gave in on the matter, forfeiting tax breaks he received on his Penn Hills home to get the issue behind him.

"It had prevented there being real scrutiny on Bob Casey," Brabender says, explaining the residency controversy damage.

This became a familiar pattern throughout 2006, and it’s one that has resurfaced in 2012. Rather than bending to electoral realities, Santorum tried to reshape them -- sometimes successfully, more often not.

There is no more vivid example of this than his book. Santorum ignored aides who urged him to wait until after the election to publish the provocative screed. Instead, he dove head-first into controversial subject matter.

"I didn't really want to write this book," he explained during a July 2005 C-SPAN interview. "I was asked to do it. And yet when I sat down and really started thinking about things -- as how America should be and what is going to make America successful in the future, I didn't want to cheat myself by not putting me in that book. And so I ended up dumping me in the book."

The book’s passages would haunt Santorum, leaving fellow Republicans with little to do but shrug their shoulders.

The book "created difficulty with ordinary voters," says Lowman Henry, a Republican state committee member. "Rick made it worse by being Rick -- by publishing his book."

Santorum couldn't resist plowing into controversial social issues, Henry explains. "It's like dangling a shiny object in front of a child."

Jim Roddey, the Allegheny County GOP chairman, put it more bluntly: "It would have been better had he not written the book.”

By the end of the race, Santorum's campaign had reached that same conclusion. Struggling to overcome a serious perception problem with female voters, Santorum held a Sept. 1, 2006, news conference at the Omni William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh to showcase endorsements from prominent women lawmakers. Meanwhile, on its website, his campaign placed a page titled “I heard around the water cooler.” It included five bullet points, each with a read-more section offering explanations for some of the more alarming passages in the book.

"It certainly, you know, caused problems at times," says Galko. "It hurt in the sense that it was just another thing that, you know, another obstacle that we had to overcome each week."

As the 2006 campaign made its way through the summer, aides found themselves unspooling the very image that they and Santorum had originally constructed.

Reportedly wary of his image as a paragon of religious conservatism, Santorum was forced to decline an offer from then Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) -- a leading Christian conservative -- to appear on the stump. Instead, Santorum blasted out press releases touting support from centrist senators, a “Democrats for Santorum” coalition led by Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.), even nice words from MSNBC’s Chris Matthews.

Santorum aired an ad that showcased his work with Hillary Clinton and compared working in Washington to participating in a professional wrestling match. In another spot, he declared himself neither conservative nor liberal, nor well-regarded by President Bush.

The repackaging of the Santorum brand included an ambitious 12-page booklet titled "50 Things You May Not Know About Rick Santorum," which attempted to sell the senator as a global healer and protector of everything from children to puppies. The highlights included "working closely with Bono" to eliminate world poverty and AIDS (No. 4), supporting efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay (No. 6), "aggressively pursuing breakthrough stem cell research" (No. 9) and working with John McCain on lobbyist reforms (No. 10). His efforts to abolish puppy mills ranked 19th.

But for all his glossy pamphlets and puppy love, Santorum still couldn’t stick to a script. The campaign tried to plan things ahead of time, recalls Galko. “But to stop Rick Santorum from being who he is, he would have never achieved what he's achieved.”

“You're going to take three steps forward one step back every now and then," says Galko. "But you have to let Rick be Rick."

RED IN THE FACE

Santorum had always been one of Pennsylvania’s most able and hard-working retail politicians. He won his first congressional race by walking the streets, without support from the official GOP apparatus. One close Casey aide recalls warning his boss that he’d be running against someone “who has the political skills to run for president.”

In 2006, however, glad-handing could be hazardous. Ryan Miner, the Santorum intern and campaign volunteer, remembers knocking on doors in a 30-mile radius of Pittsburgh and encountering rage.

"I'll say this emphatically -- there was a seething, vehement hatred of Rick Santorum," says Miner, who was attending Duquesne University at the time. "We would go door to door. They would tell us to go fuck ourselves."

"You're a young guy, what the hell are you working for this idiot for?" he recalls residents asking. Sometimes they'd wonder, "Why are you wasting your time?"

On occasion, Miner was tasked with driving Santorum to campaign events. These were not always happy road trips. "He was somebody that could get very upset very quickly," says Miner, who is now supporting Romney. "Rick had a short fuse."

After a tour of an animal shelter north of Pittsburgh in August, Miner says Santorum became germaphobic. "He demanded that we drive back in, pick up some hand sanitizer from the Giant Eagle back in the city of Pittsburgh," Miner recalls.

Miner remembers Santorum expressing disgust with a kid he saw standing in the grocery store parking lot with baggy pants, declaring he'd never let his son dress that way. Even in the most private, apolitical moment of the day, Santorum couldn't suppress the urge to judge.

"Santorum was at a constant state of unrest. There was not a moment that wasn't intense with him," Miner says. "I don't think that Rick Santorum ever turned it off."

Santorum's temperament turned off a lot of voters too -- not just motivated liberals, but Tea Party-precursing conservatives who felt scorned by their junior senator.

By early summer 2006, it was clear that retail politicking wasn’t going to save Santorum’s campaign. A study by the polling firm SurveyUSA ranked Santorum as the least-popular senator in the U.S.

Later, in July, the Santorum campaign set up a private meeting in Harrisburg to patch up relations between the candidate and leaders of the disaffected base. But what had been billed as a reconciliation quickly devolved into a screaming match, according to three attendees. About a dozen activists, many of whom had supported the conservative Club for Growth candidate Pat Toomey in his losing 2004 Senate race against Arlen Specter, brought up Santorum's support of Specter, in addition to his record on earmarks and deficit spending.

Sitting among the critics was Ryan Shafik, a former Santorum intern who went on to work in several campaigns before becoming a political consultant. "He defended deficit spending," Shafik recalls. "He screamed at people defending deficit spending. ... He really went nuts."

Bob Guzzardi, 67, had donated $30,000 to Republican groups that year, including maxing out to Santorum. Even he left the meeting unimpressed.

"He was Prince Rick," Guzzardi says. "He was just full of himself."

Jason High, a conservative activist, remembered Santorum swearing during the back-and-forth.

"At one point, Rick said, 'You know if I don't have the people in this room passionate about me, then I've lost already,'" High recalls. "And I looked at him and I said, 'Rick I don't know anyone else who will tell you this to your face, but I'm telling you -- I'm not passionate about you.'"

Santorum's argument to the activists mirrored his broader campaign pitch: Without him, there would be no conservative power in Pennsylvania. Galko concedes the meeting got "contentious," but says accounts of his candidate's meltdown are overblown and amount to "recreating history."

Brabender, who says he doesn't recall the meeting, says the activists were applying an unreasonable and unfair “purity test” to Santorum.

“We certainly found it a bit odd at times that anybody who was a social or a fiscal conservative against Casey would do anything but support us and support us enthusiastically,” Brabender says. “Rick had written more pro-life legislation than probably anybody at that time and at the same time he was a fiscal conservative, one of the strongest and with the highest ratings.”

Six years later, however, attendees still shudder at Santorum’s abrasiveness that day.

"I know he banged on the table a few times," High tells HuffPost. "Very red in the face. Just very confrontational. ... One person called me on the way home and told me they were voting for Bob Casey because Rick had to lose. He was just so arrogant."

APOCALYPTIC RHETORIC

Now one of two Republican presidential candidates with a believable reason to keep campaigning, Santorum says he’s been humbled and mellowed by that sobering ‘06 experience.

"The people of Pennsylvania didn't always give me what I wanted, but they always gave me what I needed," he said at the recent Pennsylvania Leadership Conference, adding that it was a “great gift to get away” from Washington.

The benefits of getting away seemed apparent as he trekked through the dog days of summer last year. Toiling at the bottom of the Iowa caucus polls, he nevertheless carried a positive message, homing in on the need for a manufacturing renaissance and leaving divisive cultural issues to the side.

But as primary wins piled up and the spotlight grew a bit brighter, self-damaging tendencies resurfaced. He argued that health insurers should be able to deny contraception coverage for women, called setting the goal of higher education for everyone snobbery, said President Barack Obama’s politics were tantamount to a phony theology, declared that prenatal care was designed to encourage abortions, and called public schools indoctrination factories.

There were tactical lapses inside Santorum headquarters as well. Santorum’s failure to get on the ballot in critical districts and states denied him opportunities to keep up with Romney in the delegate hunt -- the byproduct of the same fly-by-the-seat-of-your pants approach that personified his past runs. In 2006, Santorum burned through his massive cash advantage so quickly that the campaign was forced to stop advertising briefly in late-October.

There is the apocalyptic rhetoric as well. Six years after closing his Senate campaign by accusing Casey of failing to appreciate the threat of “Islamic fascists,” Santorum is now running similar ads against Obama.

“There are a lot of parallels and similarities on how Rick Santorum is running his campaign now and what he did in ‘06," says Reiff, Casey’s ‘06 campaign manager. "When the spotlight gets turned on, and he's in front of a friendly crowd, he feeds off that crowd and can't stop himself from pushing the envelope just a little too far -- or a lot too far, depending on your perspective.”

When envelope-pushing cost him a chance to win the Michigan primary last month, Santorum lost an opportunity to lay legitimate claim to being the likely Republican nominee. His wife, Karen, warned him not to get distracted by the shiny side-issues. He subsequently won a few more primaries.

Time and delegate math, however, aren’t on his side. And as the primary shifts to more moderate states, including Pennsylvania on April 24, opponents are making the case that the ‘06 race was more norm than anomaly. But there are no plans for a course correction.

“Why is Rick Santorum the only remaining viable alternative to Mitt Romney?” asks Brabender. “My belief is that people see what comes with him being willing to do what is not always the politically smart thing to do. That’s answering questions or talking about topics that maybe others wouldn't. At the same time, it creates a genuine nature of who he is. ... It means you have to fly without a net in a sense.

“I always kid people that on some days what I'm doing may be media malpractice, except that this is what Rick Santorum has made it clear for me he wants for the candidate and I believe it is working.”

Amanda Terkel contributed reporting.

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