Santorum -- More Credibility, Less Vest in 2016?

Santorum -- More Credibility, Less Vest in 2016?
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Rick Santorum is considering a comeback presidential bid in 2016. But his vintage sweater vest is mulling retirement.

The former Pennsylvania senator says his teenage daughters are now the arbiters of his fashion choices and “are particular about how their dad decides to leave the house.”

But so, too, are his political advisers who, while they might agree that sweater vest isn’t exactly the new black, are more interested in getting the likely candidate to appear less hokey and more presidential--like a candidate who won 11 primary states last time around. 

Conversations about the crowded and competitive Republican presidential field in 2016 largely ignore the candidate who placed second behind Mitt Romney in 2012, which seems counter-intuitive for a party in the habit of handing the baton to the runner-up. Santorum barely registers in polls--and that’s if he is even included in them--which supports last cycle’s theory that voters were just craving a more socially conservative alternative to Romney.

“Santorum would certainly be the same guy he was, but he has also matured in many ways,” says one of his advisers, who put it this way: “The sweater vest was great four years ago, but should he decide to run again, we will see if he can start another fashion craze.”

Unlike the 2016 contest’s early frontrunners, Santorum has run for president before, which has helped him build a political network. His political groups have raised $10 million over the past two years, and his Patriot Voices PAC employs about two dozen staff members ready to transition to a presidential campaign. The PAC attracted 70,000 donors in the past year, his staff says, and has active staff and organizers in Iowa and South Carolina.

But Santorum also has to start over in many ways, and figure out how to make an impression.

Santorum’s sweater vest took on a life of its own last cycle, not only acquiring its own Twitter handle but also becoming a significant fundraising tool. The campaign sold Santorum vests for around $100 a pop.

But making a political comeback often requires a little rebranding and polishing. For Santorum, that might mean ditching the vest for something more suitable for a serious competitor.

“He believes it would be important for folks to see him as the same guy, but also the guy who is ready to sit behind the Resolute desk,” said the Santorum adviser, referring to the Oval Office desk used by presidents since Rutherford B. Hayes. “It’s important to be able to strike that balance so that the folks in Oskaloosa (Iowa) see him not only as Rick, but also as Rick the serious presidential contender.”

Santorum says he will make a decision about a presidential run in late spring or early summer.

“We’ll be looking at a campaign with similar features” to those of the 2012 campaign, Santorum told RCP in an interview. “But there is no way to run the same campaign twice.” 

One major difference this time around, Santorum says, will be raising money by maintaining grassroots support but also seeking wealthier donors. “The ability for us to raise money was limited last time,” Santorum said. In the beginning, “I wasn’t considered a contender, I was zero on the radar screens, and I was not taken seriously. I had to spend all my time out on the road, having to earn it one vote at a time.”

Santorum’s workhorse climb from an unknown to an (eventual) Iowa caucus winner became one of the big stories of that cycle’s Republican contest. But even that feat hasn’t helped him in Iowa this time around. The RCP polling average shows him in eighth place there, with just 5 percent of the support. 

Santorum, a devout Catholic and strong supporter of traditional marriage and pro-life causes, attracted a broad religious base in Iowa last election. The bloc helped propel him to victory in the caucus there Jan. 3, 2012.

But a vote miscount that night initially gave the win to Romney, an error that Santorum says cost him dearly. 

“We didn't win Iowa when it counted, which was that night,” Santorum said. “And that made all the difference in New Hampshire and South Carolina. In all honesty we didn't win Iowa because no one knew we won Iowa. It doesn’t help you to win two weeks later, printed on page 34.”

Santorum’s performance in Iowa last election remains a selling point for his second presidential pitch. “The fact that we didn't win Iowa, but continued on” to win primaries in 10 more states, Santorum says, speaks for itself. “We've proved our resiliency over the years, and that’s one of the assets.” 

Santorum dismisses the notion that he was just the last man standing against Romney last time around. “I make the argument that we stood for something,” he says, pointing to his populist economic message as an example.

Instead, Santorum says he thinks he has fallen out of the 2016 conversation because he doesn’t hold a political office, “unlike some who lost primary races, like a John McCain or a Bob Dole who were still in office, still out on the front lines and fighting issues and getting press, or someone like Mitt Romney who had the resources to keep running.”

The former and likely candidate has been traveling to early states, and will time over the next month in Iowa and South Carolina. While Santorum was seen as a conservative alternative to the establishment favorite, this cycle there are several candidates trying to occupy a similar lane. Ted Cruz made clear in his presidential kick-off last week that he will compete with others, including Mike Huckabee or even Scott Walker, for evangelical support and will play hard in Iowa.

Santorum is continuing to pitch himself not only as a social conservative but also a blue-collar conservative who represented an electorally competitive Rust Belt state with working-class sensibilities while in the Senate. (He is the only Republican in the field who supports raising the federal minimum wage.)

“Look at the messages we were delivering, and look now--that’s what’s more in vogue,” he insists. 

But Wisconsin’s Walker can make a similar appeal and has a better and more recent history of winning elections. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have also been talking about poverty and an economy that encourages upward mobility.

Santorum says that while he is still mulling whether to get in, the idea that foreign policy will play a significant role in this election is compelling for him. The former senator will play up his role on the Armed Services Committee and his post-Congress work as a director of a conservative think tank. Santorum’s two sons now attend The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., and, wearing their uniforms, have garnered applause from attendees at some of their father’s events. 

“National security is going to be a very, very big topic,” Santorum says, noting he can stand out from the other candidates on this issue. “It’s an area I feel very prepared for, and have very definite opinions,” he said. “I don't go and get a briefing book before I talk about these things. These are issues I’ve lived with dealt with.”

But some current senators who are considering bids, such as Florida’s Rubio and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, are making foreign policy experience central to their presidential campaigns.

Santorum says the field will winnow down and become roomier, and some candidates talking about running may decide against it before the caucus. But Santorum acknowledged that Iowa would again be a make-or-break moment for him, and one of the key calculations in whether he decides to run.

“If we get in and don't win or do extremely well there, the path looks pretty narrow,” he says.

“One advantage Santorum has is that while he's won the caucuses before, he doesn't have the expectations that a Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, or even Rand Paul have,” says Iowa Republican strategist Craig Robinson. “With low expectations and the credibility he now has from winning Iowa in 2012, Santorum can slowly build momentum like he did before.”

But perhaps this time, he will do it while donning a blazer. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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