Rick Santorum on Donald Trump: Meh

Rick Santorum on Donald Trump: Meh
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Donald Trump has proved to be something of a boon to presidential candidates who are languishing at the bottom of polls and hoping for a precious spot on the prime-time debate stage next month. Lindsey Graham and Rick Perry have both found ways to capitalize on the real estate mogul’s antics.

But Rick Santorum, the 2012 Republican primary runner-up who this time is polling at less than 2 percent, isn’t going to be one of them. The former Pennsylvania senator says he’s seen the “up, down, and out” polling trends for candidates who have early moments in the sun, and Trump will flame out like the Herman Cains and the Michele Bachmanns of the world.

 “I don’t see it as a problem for me at all, because I can go to Iowa and get out there,” Santorum told RCP during a coffee break on a media blitz through Manhattan, where he appeared on virtually all cable news shows, from Fox’s “Outnumbered” to MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show.” 

“The campaigns who are bent on getting national media attention and national focus to drive them, they’re going to have a little harder time with this,” Santorum said. “Candidates focused on trying to win Iowa and prepare [themselves] to follow up in the early primary states, [they’re] in a little better position.”

Besides, Santorum has bigger fish to fry. Like Fox News.

Santorum has been among the biggest critics of the cable network’s criteria for the first debate next month in Cleveland, where the main stage will be limited to the top 10 candidates in national polls. Fox will host a separate debate a few hours earlier with the rest of the field. Basing entry on national polls is “ridiculous,” says Santorum, whose uphill path to the nomination depends on a near top finish in Iowa in February. 

“It’s a bunch a people here in this city trying to stack the deck,” Santorum said. 

Santorum also criticized the Republican National Committee, which supported the debate criteria developed by the networks, for “going along” and ceding most of the control over the process to the debate hosts. “It’s not right,” he said. “It’s not allowing the people to make this decision.”

Still, a candidate like Santorum can’t afford to sit out in protest. “I participate in every forum I can,” he said, noting that he will be at the earlier debate that day in Cleveland if he can’t make the main stage. 

Santorum is one of three candidates this cycle who have run for the presidency before (Perry and Mike Huckabee being the others). His 2012 race was the ultimate underdog story: he rose to the top by slowly and steadily making his way around Iowa. He won the caucus there, although on caucus night, Mitt Romney was erroneously declared the victor, which Santorum believes set him back. He later won a slew of Southern primaries, as those looking for an alternative to Romney rallied around him. 

But after the election, Santorum essentially disappeared from the national stage. He didn’t have a public office or a cable news show to go back to. In many ways, he is starting his presidential campaign from scratch. That’s why, he says, he’s not registering yet in the polls. 

“The public is fickle and they’re going to move on,” Santorum said about Trump’s early standing. “And in many respects, they’re looking at a lot of new people and there are really good, qualified people out there.”

Santorum is perhaps best known for his cultural conservatism. Santorum also plays to his Rust Belt roots with a focus on the American worker. But this time (besides ditching the sweater vest), Santorum says foreign policy will play a key role in his campaign, and he argues that his experience in the Senate and after—“I’ve been talking about a nuclear Iran for the past 12 years”—will set him apart from his conservative competitors. He believes the recent nuclear agreement forged with Iran—which he calls “the greatest heist in the history of negotiating! They completely ripped us off”—is an opening for his campaign.

“We really need someone who can credibly go to the American people and say, ‘I’ve been talking about this for a long time’ … and how Hillary Clinton is complicit,” Santorum says. “Iran will be a nuclear state by the time the next president is sworn in.”

Asked if he agrees with fellow candidate Scott Walker, who recently said he would prepare for military action on Day One of his presidency, Santorum noted that during a trip to Israel last year, an Israeli official advised that the United States “will need to elect a war time president, because they believe we’re going to be in a serious war." 

President Obama “has lit the world on fire to a point where it’s destabilized, and evil forces are prospering in ways we haven’t seen in 70 or 80 years,” Santorum said.

Of course, other candidates also are running on foreign policy credentials. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is making it a hallmark of his campaign. He got the chance to grill Secretary of State John Kerry during a televised Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Thursday.

While making his case, Santorum says he isn’t going to criticize the other candidates, including Trump, to get attention. “We’re going to stick to the game plan,” he said, noting his focus is on doing well in Iowa, where he will have more competition than last time in the form of Walker, Huckabee, and Ted Cruz. Instead, he’s sticking to what he knows.

“We’re going to run a grassroots-oriented, traditional campaign the old- fashioned way,” he said. “It worked last time. Maybe it won’t work this time, but my feeling is you don’t mess with success.”

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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