Rick Santorum will kick off his presidential campaign on Monday determined to prove the conventional wisdom wrong.
After all, it happened four years ago.
“I don’t think Rick Santorum is anymore an underdog than Mike Huckabee was at this point in 2007,” said Vince Galko, a longtime adviser.
Huckabee 2008 is the model for Santorum 2012, as Santorum tries to build out a coalition from the same evangelical base that powered the former Arkansas governor to a darkhorse Iowa caucus win and on to a second place delegate finish. If they get their way, his strength in Iowa will hold him through a lesser showing in the more moderate New Hampshire primary, but then he’ll come back strong in South Carolina.
The less people believe it can happen, the better they think their chances are.
“It’s all an expectations game,” a source close to the campaign told POLITICO. “Rick’s strategy from day one has been to stay under the radar and exceed expectations.”
Santorum started out his career being underestimated, starting out by knocking off a Democratic incumbent in 1990 to win a House seat, then surviving a tough redistricting cycle two years later only to beat another incumbent to win a Senate seat in 1994 and holding it even after being made a top target of national Democrats in 2000.
He’s locked down Iowa operatives who know the state well. He’s made more trips to Iowa and New Hampshire over the last two years than any other presidential hopefuls, with the possible exception of Pawlenty. He has arguably more political infrastructure in place than Huckabee had at this point last cycle, and as much as any candidates in the field not named Romney or Pawlenty.
“The big thing is that he came in early and has been here a lot,” said Sam Clovis, who hosts a conservative radio show in northwest Iowa. “He’s laid a tremendous amount of groundwork.”
While he’s been tending to the social conservative base, Santorum’s been pursuing more constituencies with a stump speech that frames everything from his role on welfare reform in the 1990s to experience in foreign policy chops from being on the Senate Armed Services Committee in moral terms.
“He’s saying all the right things,” said Steve Scheffler, head of the Iowa Christian Alliance and an RNC committeeman. “The only thing that remains to be seen is will anyone be able to get that [Huckabee] coalition to coalesce behind one individual candidate.”
That’s where Santorum’s luck has been both good and bad. Six months ago, the prospect that both Huckabee and Sarah Palin would stay out of the race would have been a dream scenario for Santorum. But Michele Bachmann’s likely entrance, along with Herman Cain’s surging appeal, threatens to splinter evangelical interest.
Again, Huckabee, who wowed the crowds in the debates, is the model. Santorum is hoping that he’ll shine through while Bachmann stumbles and Cain shows his inexperience.
Ed Rollins, the longtime GOP strategist who orchestrated Huckabee’s campaign, agreed that those performances will be key.
“If people will give him the to time to listen to him, he can be a very credible candidate,” Rollins said.
Not that too many other Republicans are convinced he could even be a factor.
“If he wants to occupy a space that Huckabee did, there are other people who can do that better than him,” said GOP strategist Curt Anderson, who worked for Romney in 2008 but is so far uncommitted. “That’s just not credible. I just don’t think his candidacy’s relevant.”
In the weekend leading up the announcement, Santorum swung by Huckabee’s Fox News show. Though he insists that he’s only after the ultimate prize, friends and allies acknowledge that Huckabee’s the model in this too, as Santorum tries to find a new voice in national politics — and perhaps even a Fox show of his own, with a new, bigger contract to replace the one that was severed as he got serious about his campaign.
“He continues to get his name out there, and that’s always good for someone who likes to talk,” one campaign insider said.
“I think he saw a presidential campaign as the perfect stage to reintroduce himself and reposition himself,” said former Pennsylvania Rep. Phil English, a friend and former colleague who’s supporting Romney. “Rick is going to emerge on the other side of this election cycle in a very enhanced position. He may end up as the leading figure in a faction of the party that will continue to be influential.”
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