Still an underdog, Santorum weighing another White House bid

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Posted: Jan 23, 2015 1:58 PM
Still an underdog, Santorum weighing another White House bid

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Rick Santorum admits that most people probably don't remember how he rallied to kick off the 2012 presidential election with a win in the lead-off Iowa caucuses.

Four years later, he's still an underdog. That suits him just fine, even if his dogged embrace of that role keeps his advisers up at night.

"One of the great gifts I've had in my political career is I've been overlooked and underestimated," Santorum said. "And I expect that's going to happen again. It's always worked in my benefit."

The former Pennsylvania senator, who visited each of Iowa's 99 counties while campaigning ahead of the last Iowa caucus, often with just a single aide along for the ride, says he's months away from making a decision about whether to run for president a second time. That he's spending the next five days in Iowa, including delivering a speech Saturday at a forum hosted by Iowa Rep. Steve King and featuring several of the GOP's 2016 prospects, is as sure a sign as any that he plans another run.

Should Santorum formally get into the 2016 race, he'll face competition for the support of evangelical and social conservatives that is likely to be significantly more formidable than in 2012. He will also need to avoid the disorganization that plagued his last campaign if he's to have any chance of making a serious run at the nomination.

"The landscape has changed. The ground has shifted. This is not 2011. The stakes are higher. The players on the field have changed," said Jamie Johnson, a member of the Iowa Republican Party's state central committee.

Johnson supported Santorum in 2012, although his role with the party now keeps him from backing a candidate. And this time, he said, there are simply so many more from which to choose. "In 2011, there was no Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee or Rand Paul, and Rick Perry 2.0 is going to be much more real," Johnson said.

All but Paul will be at King's event on Saturday, along with Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who is also drawing interest from conservative activists in Iowa and elsewhere.

Santorum, 56, stood out in the 2012 race for social conservatives, as he vocally opposed abortion rights and gay marriage, as well as the Common Core education standards adopted by many states that have since become a rallying cry inside parts of the GOP.

He narrowly beat Mitt Romney in the caucuses by 34 ballots, even if it took a few days for that result to become clear. On the night of the vote, the Iowa Republican Party initially declared Romney the winner by 8 ballots. Santorum went on to win 11 states, delaying for a few months Romney's claim on the Republican nomination.

But for all his scrappy success, Santorum's 2012 campaign was also a chronic underperformer. Santorum proudly refused to hire a pollster, often found himself sleeping on friends' couches to save on cash and relied on supporters to drive him between events held in living rooms and diners.

That helped reinforce Santorum's underdog theme, but the lack of a professional back office had a real-world effect. On the night he won Louisiana's primary, he found himself celebrating with staff in a Green Bay, Wisconsin, bar, watching Ann Romney talk about the results. "If I'm the winner by that big of a margin, why am I not on TV?" he said that night.

The campaign's delegate-collecting operation was led, in part, by Santorum's daughter, Elizabeth, then age 20, rather than a seasoned campaign professional. Such technical details aren't front-and-center before voters, but Romney often won delegates — which ultimately determine the party's nominee — by default, because Santorum didn't put forward a full slate of party activists to collect them.

This time, Santorum is working to avoid such mistakes. He huddled in Washington earlier this week with the team that would form the backbone of a campaign staff, studying what went wrong in 2012.

In the room for those talks was Rob Bickhart, a former Republican National Committee finance director who is expected to lead the campaign's fundraising. Santorum struggled financially in 2012, raising just $22 million before exiting the race. Romney raised $57 million before the first votes were cast.

Santorum still has the backing of millionaire investor Foster Friess, who backed his effort in 2012 and recently held a gathering in Arizona where Santorum met with other potential donors.

Wendy Armstrong, 46, a Republican from Johnston, supported Santorum in 2012. She still likes Santorum's message, but likes Huckabee and Cruz, too.

"There's a genuineness about Santorum that I really appreciate," Armstrong said. "That's why I feel drawn to him."

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Elliott reported from Washington.