Rick Santorum is keeping expectations low for his second presidential campaign. Asked if he would need to win the Iowa caucuses to stay in the race, the former senator said it “depends.”
“If I finish third and half a percent behind first, I think I feel pretty good. If I finish third and I’m ten points out, well, that’s a different story,” he told a small group of reporters in a Washington restaurant Monday afternoon.
That’s quite an admission from Santorum, who actually won the 2012 Iowa caucuses by a razor-thin margin over Mitt Romney. Initial media reports were that Romney had won, and it took 18 days before the state of Iowa confirmed Santorum’s victory, and the bounce he might have received from winning on caucus day didn’t quite materialize. Even so, he would go on to win ten more states to place second to Romney. On paper, that record might suggest Santorum would have been an obvious “next in line” candidate for 2016.
But so far, the Pennsylvania Republican’s been more of an afterthought. According to the Real Clear Politics average of national polls, he’s at two percent support. It’s nowhere close to a sure thing Santorum will make it into the top-ten pool for the first Fox News debate August 6. (He called the Republican National Committee’s debate requirements “arbitrary.”) And in Iowa, the state that kept Santorum alive for the long haul in 2012, he’s polling at an average of 4.3 points, putting him in ninth place.
Meanwhile, Santorum, who served two terms in the U.S. House and two in the Senate before losing his seat in 2006, is resolute about his chances in 2016. “We’re in this thing to win it. If I didn’t think I could win it I wouldn’t run,” he said.
For the Iowa voters he’s met this time around, Santorum says there are some differences in what issues these Republicans are concerned about. They’re more interested in talking about national security and immigration than they were in 2012. There’s less anxiety, too, about health care, and he said many Republicans are “convinced that they’re stuck with Obamacare.”
“They’re not,” Santorum said. “You give me 50 United States senators and a Republican House, and we can de facto repeal Obamacare through reconciliation. Take all the money out and make it impotent. And then replace it with a plan that provides federal support for everybody to be able to go out and get the plan they want. And then put patients and doctors back in charge of the health-care system. That’s the answer.”
A staunch opponent of abortion—he was the chief Senate sponsor of the partial-birth abortion ban—Santorum was critical of the response from congressional leadership of a recent video showing a high-ranking Planned Parenthood official casually discussing the selling of body parts from aborted infants. House speaker John Boehner has called for committee-led investigations into the organization, but Santorum says the Republican Congress should have already voted to strip Planned Parenthood of its federal funding.
“This is why I sort of scratch my head at our leadership. They are so afraid about these issues that even when you have an issue that is probably an 80 to 90 percent issue in America, they won’t talk about that, because you have a group of members, a group of donors, who will climb down your throat if you do. And they just want to avoid these issues at all costs. They don’t recognize that these issues don’t go away. They don’t go away, and they’re important to people,” he said.
Santorum has called on the GOP to adopt a more populist agenda on economics, even writing a book in 2013 called Blue Collar Conservatives. I asked him how healthy blue-collar conservatism is in the party. “I think you see more Republicans sound like me,” Santorum said. “Four years ago, if you think about it, was there anyone else in the race that really had a focus on a populist economic message, on workers, and being more critical of corporate America?”
There wasn’t. This time there are, with candidates like Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump all sounding a populist tone on some or many issues: trade, immigration, corporate welfare, entitlements, and government bureaucracy. Santorum’s 2012 run may have helped give populism a new lease on life within the Republican party. But so far, that lease hasn’t been extended to Santorum himself.