By Marcus Stern and Kristina Cooke
ATLANTA (Reuters) - Rick Santorum's last-minute surge in the Iowa caucus brought him neck-and-neck with Mitt Romney in the first contest of the 2012 race to select a Republican presidential candidate. But it came too late to attract the harsh scrutiny usually visited on front-runners.
Only in recent days have questions emerged about his stand on abortion, his votes in Congress, and his endorsements of Romney over John McCain in 2008, and Senator Arlen Specter over Pat Toomey in 2004.
If rival candidates decide to go negative on Santorum - as they have on Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul -- they have plenty of material with which to work.
Santorum is beloved among "values voters" for his stand on abortion, gay marriage and other social issues. But his record is rich in polarizing policy positions and questionable associations that support the charge of "Washington insider."
For example, his million-dollar-plus 2010 income included payments from a lobbying firm, an energy company engaged in controversial "hydrofracking" and a hospital conglomerate that was sued for allegedly defrauding the federal government.
"The spotlight is blinding, and if you squint or stumble even slightly, it gets even more intense," said Dan Schnur, a former Republican campaign consultant who now heads the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at University of Southern California. "Santorum hasn't faced it yet, but it's about to hit him in a huge way."
Santorum says he's ready. "This isn't my first rodeo. I've been in tough races," Santorum said Monday in Iowa. "I've had the national media crawling up anywhere they could crawl. ... It's not going to be fun."
Texas Governor Rick Perry fired an opening salvo last weekend, charging that Santorum, 53, was a big spender in Congress who voted to raise the debt ceiling and approved such pork-barrel projects as Alaska's Bridge to Nowhere, a tea pot museum in North Carolina and an indoor rain forest in Iowa. (http://link.reuters.com/nug85s)
Santorum, a lawyer with working-class roots, was 32 when he was first elected to Congress in 1990 from a western Pennsylvania district. He served two terms in the House of Representatives before being elected to the Senate. He served two Senate terms from 1995-2007, before losing his seat in a landslide.
Santorum declined to comment for this article, but on other occasions he has defended his earmarks. "Congress appropriates money," Santorum told "Good Morning America" this week. "That is what Congress is supposed to do."
As a senator, Santorum went further, playing a key role in an effort by Republicans in Congress to dictate the hiring practices, and hence the political loyalties, of Washington's deep-pocketed lobbying firms and trade associations, which had previously been bipartisan.
Dubbed "the K Street Project" for the Washington street that houses most of these groups, the initiative was launched in 1989 by lobbyist Grover Norquist, whose sole aim, he said, was to encourage lobbying firms to "hire people who agree with your worldview, not hire for access."
But the rubric "K Street Project" came to encompass the entire climate of cozy cooperation between Republicans and lobbyists.
When Republicans won control of the House in 1994, House Majority Leader Tom Delay and others organized regular meetings with lobbyists that reviewed K Street job openings with an eye toward filling them with party loyalists, who would in turn steer support and donations to the members.
By 2001, Sen. Santorum was also holding one-hour breakfast meetings with lobbyists on alternating Tuesday mornings at 8:30 a.m.
In 2004 he denied being involved with Norquist's effort to staff K Street. But Santorum convened Senate Republicans to discuss the appointment of Democrat Dan Glickman as head the Motion Picture Association, according to Roll Call, a newspaper covering Capitol Hill.
"Yeah, we had a meeting, and yeah, we talked about making sure that we have fair representation on K Street. I admit that I pay attention to who is hiring, and I think it's important for leadership to pay attention," he told the paper at the time.
In 2006, as the influence-peddling scandal that sent lobbyist Jack Abramoff to jail unfolded, Santorum said he was ending the breakfasts in his conference room. However, his staff confirmed to Washington newspapers that they resumed almost immediately, on the same day and at the same time, at a location off the Capitol grounds.
Abramoff never attended Santorum's breakfasts. "I was focused on the House," he told Reuters. Yet the mushrooming scandal about Abramoff's activities cast a harsh light on all aspects of the lobbyist huddles on Capitol Hill.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal government watchdog group, named Santorum among three "most corrupt" senators in 2005 and 2006, accusing him of "using his position as a member of Congress to financially benefit those who have made contributions to his campaign committee and political action committee." (Link to 2006 report: http://link.reuters.com/wug85s)
LIFE AFTER CONGRESS
The blowback from the K Street Project contributed to Sen. Santorum's crushing 18-percentage-point defeat in his 2006 reelection bid. His image as a conservative firebrand who made polarizing comments about abortion, gays and single mothers played a role as well, as did Santorum's full-throated support of the war in Iraq.
A few weeks after he left Congress, although his law license had expired, Santorum landed a job in the Washington office of Pittsburgh-based law firm Eckert Seamans. Lawyers at the firm had given Santorum 45 political contributions totaling $24,400 while he was in Congress, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
As senator, Santorum "was a friend of the firm," said Timothy Ryan, Eckert Seamans' chief executive officer. Santorum helped make introductions and did other "relationship work," including providing Eckert Seamans' clients with business and strategy counseling, Ryan said.
Since then, thanks to his political contacts, Santorum has cobbled together a comfortable living as a political pundit, policy advocate and corporate consultant. His 2010 financial disclosure form shows that the self-described "grandson of a coal miner" earned at least $900,000 that year.
* Fox News paid him $239,153 to appear as an occasional contributor;
* Radio Salem paid him $83,999 to serve as a guest host on "Bill Bennett's Morning in America" radio show;
* The Philadelphia Inquirer paid him $23,000 as a freelance columnist.
* The Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative advocacy group, paid him $217,385 as a senior fellow.
Santorum also collected a total of $332,500 in consulting fees from three corporations:
* $65,000 from the American Continental Group lobbying firm
* $142,500 from Consol Energy
* $125,000 from the Clapham Group, a Virginia-based corporation started by longtime Santorum staffer Mark Rodgers. On its website, Clapham says its mission is to "influence culture upstream of the political arena."
"Rick's been around Washington for quite some time," American Continental president David Urban said. "When he looks at the tea leaves he may see things differently than others. We'd chat about which way different pieces of legislation might be heading. He is a very bright guy so I paid for his insight, and he's a friend, someone whose advice I could trust."
American Continental represents Microsoft, the American Gaming Association, Monsanto and the Association of Mortgage Investors among others.
A spokesperson for Consol Energy said that they "engaged Senator Santorum to provide strategic counsel on a variety of public policy-related issues."
The most high-profile issue for the company recently has been the gas mining technique called hydrofracking, which critics allege has in some places polluted ground water.
Santorum sang the technique's praises at a campaign stop in Iowa, saying that in Pennsylvania "we are drilling, baby, drilling."
In addition, Santorum served on the board of a for-profit hospital chain, Universal Health Services (UHS), where he received $341,000 in compensation from 2007 to 2010.
During Santorum's four years on the board, UHS's McAllen, Texas, hospital group was sued for defrauding Medicare through "illegal compensation to doctors in order to induce them to refer patients to hospitals within the group," according to a Justice Department press release in 2009. The McAllen group agreed to settle the lawsuit by paying $27.5 million.
The next year, the Justice Department sued a Virginia UHS facility that caters to boys ages 11 to 17 alleging that the facility "billed Medicaid for inpatient psychiatric care that was not provided, in violation of federal and state Medicaid requirements, and falsified records to cover up their serious violations."
When asked about the Virginia case. Santorum told Yahoo News, "Any investigation, you obviously engage and fully cooperate with it, and that's what we did.. that's part of the responsibility of directors."
He resigned from the UHS board in June 2011. During the third quarter of 2011, UHS reached a tentative financial settlement of the Virginia case. Allen Miller, president and CEO of UHS, is a longtime supporter of Santorum, who has contributed $6,850 to his campaigns and $11,000 to his leadership PAC since 1999.
America's Foundation is a leadership PAC, or political action committee, affiliated with Santorum since 1998. Leadership PACs were created so that congressional leaders could raise money for less senior candidates of their party, and they are not as closely monitored as other PACs by the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
Since 1998, America's Foundation has raised $11.8 million and given $1.1 million - or 9 percent to candidates, according to the Center For Responsive Politics. Most of the money has been spent on direct mail fundraising appeals on various issues.
Also during his 2006 reelection bid, Santorum's supporters created a different sort of political action group they named Softer Voices. As a "527" organization under Internal Revenue Service rules, Softer Voices was able to accept unlimited contributions from a small group of wealthy donors.
Because Santorum was struggling with women voters, the group created a website with testimonials from women. The FEC then chided the group for not registering as a political operation, and Softer Voices chose to cease operations.
IT TAKES A FAMILY
A devout Catholic with seven children, Santorum has taken positions on many social issues that may not play well with moderate voters and others that may trouble the conservative base.
He has vowed to reinstate the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy on gays in the military and annul all gay marriages, which are legal in New Hampshire, the site of the next Republican primary.
He opposes legal abortion, yet he supported a bill that allows it in the case of rape or incest or danger to the mother, telling David Gregory on Meet the Press last week that this was a calculated compromise to move toward the greater goal of ending abortion.
Similarly, he endorsed fellow Pennsylvanian, Sen. Arlen Specter, who is pro-choice, over anti-abortion primary challenger Pat Toomey in 2004. That move became even more offensive to conservatives when a victorious Specter went on to switch parties and cast a crucial vote for President Obama's health care plan.
Santorum has said his was a "political decision" based on his calculations of how to best influence upcoming Supreme Court appointments.
Santorum presents family values as the cornerstone of his political convictions. But here, too, his behavior might alienate as many voters as it attracts.
In 1996, after his wife, Karen, gave birth to a child who lived just two hours, the Santorums brought the dead baby Gabriel home to meet the other children, which Karen subsequently described in a book.
The Santorums are also proud homeschoolers. They moved to a Virginia suburb of Washington DC as soon as he was elected to the Senate in 1995, but still cost their Pennsylvania school district more than $100,000 because their children were enrolled in an online charter school based there from 2001-2005.
The district was required to pay the tuition of students who attended this type of school via the Internet. The state of Pennsylvania eventually covered some of these education costs. Santorum's defense was that he still owned a house in the district and paid property taxes. But this issue, too, became a factor in his ill-fated 2006 reelection campaign.
In that race, against Democrat Bob Casey, Jr., the attacks were coming so fast and furious that Santorum decided to issue a pamphlet, titled "50 Things You May Not Know About Rick Santorum." (http://link.reuters.com/gyg85s)
In an effort to soften his image as a hard-line social conservative, it touted Santorum's efforts to raise the minimum wage, expand stem-cell research, battle AIDS, guarantee Social Security benefits, protect Food Stamps, and increase funding for the Head Start preschool program. It also advocated passing tough new lobbying laws
The pamphlet no longer appears on any of Santorum's websites, and its claims often appear at odds with his behavior in Congress - where, for example, he advocated privatizing social security and condemned federal funding for stem cell research.
But in the overheated climate of today's opposition research, it is likely to provide ammunition to Santorum's opponents on both his left and his right.
(Editing by Lee Aitken and Derek Caney)