Santorum 2.0 -- Same Steak, Less Sizzle

Santorum 2.0 -- Same Steak, Less Sizzle
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Nearly four years ago, a grassroots victory in the Iowa caucuses propelled Rick Santorum to an unlikely second-place finish in the Republican primary. When Santorum launches a second bid for president Wednesday in his hometown of Butler, Penn., he will seek to recapture some of that political magic in pursuit of the ultimate prize.

But 2016 is no 2012.

“I think he recognizes that it's a lot different this time around, because the field is different and the circumstances are different,” said Iowa activist Sam Clovis, who supported Santorum in 2012 but has not yet committed to a candidate for this election cycle.

In spite of his success in 2012, Santorum starts this election cycle as perhaps an even greater underdog, with anemic support in public polling and facing more competition than before — in particular in Iowa, where Santorum must perform well to be viable.

The Republican field, considerably broader and more competitive than in 2012, is stacked with candidates who might take a bite out of Santorum’s conservative base, and evangelical Christian voters in particular, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, and Sen. Ted Cruz. 

And Santorum does not only face a more intense face-off for voters in Iowa, but also for top aides and activists. Already, much of Santorum’s former Iowa crew has fanned out among other campaigns.

Chuck Laudner, who ran Santorum’s successful Iowa caucus operation in 2012, has been poached by businessman and television personality Donald Trump; Jill Latham Ryan, who worked as a senior adviser to Santorum’s Iowa campaign and later as his deputy campaign manager, and her husband Nick Ryan, who ran Santorum’s super PAC, are both on board with Huckabee’s super PAC. 

Santorum “has lost the backbone of some of his key Iowa supporters,” said one former campaign aide.

The same is true of some Santorum’s former national organization. Notably, his former campaign manager Mike Biundo has signed on to spearhead Sen. Rand Paul’s New Hampshire operation. Still, Santorum’s longtime senior adviser John Brabender remains in the fold.

In past election cycles, former runners-up to the Republican nomination have come back as frontrunners on their next try. John McCain won the GOP nod in 2008 after placing second to George W. Bush in 2000; Mitt Romney, who finished second to McCain in 2008, came back to win the nomination in 2012. 

But the trend has not held for Santorum, who is polling in the bottom tier of Republicans. He currently scores just 2.3 percent in the national RealClearPolitics polling average, and 3 percent in the RealClearPolitics average of Iowa polls.

Santorum has sought publicly to project confidence in spite of those numbers, however.

“It was a great campaign last time,” Santorum said on Fox News earlier this month. “We were clearly the underdog, and we are starting out as looking at this race and we would be in the same position. And so we are very comfortable there.”

To try to recapture the magic of 2012, Santorum’s campaign will likely look much like it did during that election cycle, allies say, characterized by small meet-and-greets in every one of Iowa’s 99 counties. Santorum will make a beeline for the Hawkeye State after his announcement Wednesday, beginning with an event at the Machine Shed restaurant in Davenport on Thursday.

But, unlike last time, many Iowans have already personally met Santorum or are well familiar with him.

At the recent Lincoln Dinner in Iowa, a cattle call of sorts for Republican presidential candidates, activist and Santorum supporter Karen Fesler approached attendees to remind them that Santorum was there, should they wish to meet him. But many people had already met Santorum multiple times during the 2012 election cycle and went to schmooze with other candidates instead.

Santorum’s allies are hopeful, however, that Iowans will return for another look — even if Santorum no longer has that new-car smell.

“I don't think anyone has summarily dismissed him,” Fesler said. “There's a lot of people out there that are testing the waters, kicking the tires of other candidates.”

 

Rebecca Berg is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at rberg@realclearpolitics.com.

 

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