How Rick Santorum is laying the groundwork for another presidential run

Chris Moody
Yahoo News

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Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum walks in the March for Life rally in Washington. (Chris Moody/Yahoo New …

WASHINGTON — Talk about campaign trail déjà vu.

As hundreds of bundled-up supporters gathered around him on a freezing January day, Rick Santorum towered over a lectern and rallied his troops. Aides pecking at smartphones lined the perimeter of the hotel conference room. An army of young children scurried across the floor. Volunteers collected email addresses and phone numbers at a fold-up table near the door.

The people, the “candidate” — even the weather — gave the event a presidential primary campaign feel. But this scene played out in the Capitol Hill Hyatt in Washington, not a Sheraton in West Des Moines and there won’t be a presidential election for another two years.

It’s at events like this gathering before the March for Life, which marked the 41st anniversary of Roe v. Wade, that Santorum is conducting a presidential campaign in waiting. There were banners, aides, supporters, a stump speech — a whole campaign-style apparatus organized by Patriot Voices, a conservative advocacy group the former Republican presidential hopeful founded after ceding the field to Mitt Romney in April 2012.

The 55-year-old former lawmaker’s wave of dark hair is slightly grayer now, and he has slimmed down since his Iowa campaign days, when he would spend hours talking to supporters at Pizza Ranch restaurants across the state. Santorum’s last-minute rise as a presidential candidate left him emboldened, and he never really left the stage in conservative circles or ceded his role as an advocate for a certain set of social views. Now he’s eying another run for the White House — a move that could upend 2016 calculations by such high profile potential candidates as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

“I am certainly very open” to running for president in 2016, Santorum told a supporter before the march. “The fact is, we have a good track record of success and we think we have something to say that’s different than others.”

Since he dropped out in 2012, Santorum has been laying the groundwork for another run. His advocacy group provides him a platform to raise money, gather email addresses and promote conservative policy causes. He visits Iowa frequently. The exposure from his last campaign allows Santorum to charge a premium for speeches, which aides say has been lucrative. He temporarily penned a weekly column for the conservative website World Net Daily, which ended in June 2013 when he was brought on to lead the production company EchoLight Studios, which produces family-friendly movies.

He still surrounds himself with many of the same staff from the campaign trail: Former spokeswoman Alice Stewart handles his relationship with the national press. He retains a working relationship with Hogan Gidley and John Brabender from the political consulting firm BrabenderCox, which Santorum relied on for strategy advice in 2012. Longtime aides Matt Beynon and Virginia Davis still run communication for his super PAC, the Red, White and Blue Fund, and for Patriot Voices, respectively, along with a handful of other paid aides, family members and strategists.

Those inside Santorum World are not shy about discussing his plans.

“Santorum is considering another run in 2016, and everything he is doing is consistent with launching another run,” Beynon, who has worked for Santorum in various capacities for 11 years, told me.

Billionaire businessman Foster Friess, who kept Santorum’s super PAC flush with cash during the last campaign, said last year that he would support Santorum again if he could.

“He's still one of my favorite candidates," Friess told Yahoo News and ABC News in a joint interview in January 2013.

When he launched his fledgling presidential campaign in 2011, few took Santorum seriously. Relying on a bare-bones staff and support from friends, Santorum methodically worked his way through all of Iowa’s 99 counties. Sometimes, only a couple people turned up for his events. It wasn’t until the final days before the Iowa caucuses that his name began to rise in the polls. He ultimately bested front-runner Mitt Romney by a handful of votes in the first-in-the-nation contest, then rode the momentum well into the spring. It was an underdog success story that befuddled Romney’s entire operation.

The Pennsylvanian’s refusal to quit taught one crucial lesson: Do not underestimate Rick Santorum.

Looking to the next presidential contest, many already are. His new potential competitors — Christie, Paul and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, to name a few — regularly suck up most of the most of the media oxygen surrounding the next Republican primary.

On a personal level, running for president could be a challenge for Santorum, a man who is by no means rich, and the father of seven children, one of whom is a 5-year-old with special needs. In conversations, Santorum’s older kids express a cautious openness to their dad making another go at it, but they still recall the stress and work that went into a grueling national campaign.

Santorum’s wife, Karen, is still on the fence.

“We’re praying about it,” she said.



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In this Jan. 16, 2012, photo, Rick Santorum and his wife, Karen, leave the Faith and Freedom Coalition rally in …

In April, Santorum plans to take another step toward the road to the White House by releasing a book called "Blue Collar Conservatives," which will flesh out his populist proposal for a renaissance of American manufacturing.

It’s a message Santorum told me will be central to his campaign if he runs, just as it was the last time. But that is not to suggest that Santorum will shy away from culture war issues. Far from it. At a time when many national Republicans prefer not to dwell on social issues such as same-sex marriage, Santorum wants them to double down.

Many in the party disagree with Santorum’s insistence to keep hammering away at social issues, particularly top donors who approve of the Republican economic agenda but could hardly care less if gay people can get married. Santorum was furious with the Republican National Committee last spring, for instance, when the party commissioned a list of recommendations for growth that called for de-emphasizing social issues.

“One thing I learned in politics early on is that if you’re defending, you’re losing,” he said. “Here’s the problem with the Republican Party today: On the issue of abortion, they don’t want to talk about it. On the issue of marriage, they don’t want to talk about it. Well, guess what? If we don’t talk about it, let me assure you, the other side’s going to talk about it! …. All we do is play defense of social issues. Hopefully Republicans are learning that’s a loser. It’s one of the reasons we’re not in the majority.”

Along the way, Santorum wants to make sure that he’s spreading that message with a smile. He’s self aware enough to know that others have long typecast him as judgmental and even angry.

“We just need to keep loving, keep working, and do so with a smile on our face,” he often says, before transforming his face into a twinkling, toothy grin that looks like he’s still workshopping it to get the look just right. “Be winsome.”

After his speech at the Hyatt, Santorum joined his wife and three of their children, Elizabeth, Sarah Marie and Peter, for photos alongside the Duggar family, reality TV stars made famous on the TLC network for rearing 19 children. They were major supporters of Santorum’s presidential effort, adding star power to the campaign. That year, the family outfitted a full-size coach with “Santorum for President” logos so that it looked like an official campaign bus. (Santorum’s team didn’t have enough cash to bankroll flashy transportation at the time.) The Duggars traveled across Iowa on his behalf and dispatched their children to raise money during stops by collecting cash in popcorn bins.

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Santorum and Jim Bob Duggar from the TLC reality show

Today, the Duggars split time between the TLC show and promoting conservative causes. The family plans to be active again during the 2016 presidential campaign, but they’re not fully committed to a candidate yet.

“We’ll definitely be helping, we’ll see what happens,” Jim Bob Duggar, the family patriarch, told me. “There’s a lot of things that can happen between now and then.”

As Duggar’s hesitancy to throw the full weight of his support behind Santorum suggests, it remains an open question whether or not Santorum’s old base will continue to back him if a new social conservative competitor emerges.

There’s a possibility that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, another darling of social conservative voters and winner of the Iowa caucuses in 2008, could join the race and run against Santorum in the Republican contest. For a family like the Duggars, choosing between Santorum and Huckabee would make for a difficult choice.

“We’d have to pray about that,” Duggar, who was a state representative in Arkansas during Huckabee’s governorship, told me.

After a brief stop to greet more supporters at the Family Research Council, Santorum and his family piled into a black rented SUV and made their way down the street to join hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the snow-blanketed grass between the Washington Monument and the Capitol.

When he arrived, Santorum, wearing a bright red overcoat with Patriot Voices bumper stickers on his shoulder and chest, spotted Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus behind the stage and bent his ear about the party needing to engage more on social issues. (The massive crowd of people behind him provided a convenient backdrop to make his case.) As an act of solidarity with social conservatives, the RNC had intentionally postponed its annual winter meeting so members could attend the rally. On the front row near the stage, dozens of RNC committee members stood together wearing brightly colored baseball caps with the words “RNC” printed in large letters on the front. The symbolic message — that the party does not intend to back down on abortion — was clear.

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Santorum and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus talk backstage at the March for Life rally in …

After his brief chat with Priebus, I caught up with Santorum and asked him about life after the campaign. He’s still adjusting, he said, especially to his newest venture in the motion picture industry.

“It’s a tough business,” Santorum told me. “I find a lot more honest people in politics than I do in movies.”

He added that he had not seen any of the movies nominated for Best Picture yet — “Wolf of Wall Street” isn't really his style anyway — but he loved “The Hunger Games” sequel. “It’s a little futuristic in what big government totalitarianism can be. To anyone who thinks that that happens overnight, you’re crazy,” he said. “People just get more willing to let people do things for them than doing it for themselves. That’s a concern that I think a lot of Americans have.”

Our conversation drifted to politics, and of course, the presidential race. Santorum freely spoke his mind about future possible contenders. He doesn’t see Christie as the “inevitable” future for the party.

“What people think is going to happen today is not going to happen. No one is going to get it right,” he said of those who declare Christie the next GOP standard-bearer. “Running for president is not like running for statewide office. Having done both, let me assure you: It’s not the same.”

Paul could prove to be an even bigger headache for Santorum than Christie during the primary season. In Iowa, home to Santorum’s most ardent supporters, the state Republican Party is largely controlled by supporters of the Paul family, who rose to power by way of his father, former presidential candidate and Texas Rep. Ron Paul. In 2016, Rand Paul could prove a formidable challenger on Santorum’s adopted home turf. Further, the Santorums and Pauls have a past: During the 2012 campaign, Santorum said that the senior Paul was “dangerous” because of his foreign policy views and opinions about drug legalization.

“I’m not a libertarian and I’m not an isolationist,” Santorum told me about Paul. “Both of those things, I don’t think are in the best interest of the average American.”

Behind him, the demonstrators had started their walk and Santorum turned around to join them. Along the way, he ran into Christopher Beach, a producer from Bill Bennett’s radio show, which Santorum has guest-hosted in the past. Santorum made it a tradition to challenge the staff to pushup contests during breaks. For old time’s sake, Santorum and Beach dropped down in the snow and pulled off 25 flawless pushups.

Warmed up for the march, Santorum stood up and dusted the snow off his jacket. He ran toward the slowly moving herd and took his place behind a massive Patriot Voices banner with his name on it for the crowded walk toward Capitol Hill.

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Former Republican presidential candidate and Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum at the March for Life rally in Washington. …

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