WASHINGTON-Rick Santorum is "more like me" than Mitt Romney is, Ohio voters are telling reporters. The former senator is "basically down to earth," they say. But Santorum says that to maintain that connection he needs to take chances: "The best way for me to do that is to get out there on a tightrope without a net and let folks see what we are really all about."
That's what the former senator from Pennsylvania told me during a Feb. 20 interview when I asked him what underlies his current appeal. "People are looking for someone who is authentic. Not necessarily people agreeing with everything I say, but they know where I am going to be. They know I believe what I am saying. I'm not saying it because it's popular today ... and that resonates with folks."
Santorum was taking media heat in the second half of February for plain-spoken comments he's made-some during this campaign, some years ago-about contraception, homosexuality, Satan, schooling, traditional marriage, and much beside. He's walking the tightrope. But what's been missing from the candidate largely known for his sleeveless sweater vests is the attitude that once gave him the nickname Senator Slash.
Santorum's transformation from a firebrand Senator to a more thoughtful but still "authentic" presidential candidate apparently started with a pruning by both personal and professional losses. "Spiritual maturity takes place when someone has to experience more dependency on God rather than the sort of self-sufficiency that can be felt when you're on top of the world (as a) new freshmen senator," said Mark Rodgers, Santorum's former chief of staff.
The Senator Slash moniker originated soon after a 36-year-old Santorum became the Senate's youngest member in 1995, but his fighting nature wasn't new: High-school classmates nicknamed him "Rooster," and as a young Pittsburgh lawyer Santorum lobbied for the World Wrestling Federation. As a two-term congressman, Santorum helped force the release of the names of lawmakers who had bounced checks at the House of Representatives bank.
Less than two months after joining the Senate, Santorum took on a senior member of his own party, Mark Hatfield, who chaired the powerful Appropriations Committee. When Hatfield cast the decisive vote against a balanced budget constitutional amendment, Santorum pushed to strip Hatfield of his committee chairmanship.
The head of the committee responsible for doling out federal money to Pennsylvania wasn't Santorum's only target. He regularly entered the decorum-ruled Senate floor with a provocative chart that read, "Where's Bill?" He referred to then-President Bill Clinton as "that guy" during speeches attacking Clinton's budget policies.
Santorum's rhetoric outraged liberals and guardians of Senate tradition. "It's about time the freshmen members of this body come into it with a bit of humbleness," protested Sen. James Exon, D-Neb. Santorum responded with a complaint about the "aristocratic" Senate "with all this grandeur."
"They need someone who is going to try and rock the boat around here a little bit," Santorum told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Santorum's in-your-face ways yielded results: He took the Republican lead in the Senate during the welfare reform effort, often managing floor debates against veteran liberal Ted Kennedy. Santorum also became the third-ranking Republican in Senate leadership. Today, nearly 20 years older, he admits he didn't defend his views in the best way.
"I was a young hard charger, frustrated like a lot of folks who have an idealism about what American politics should be," Santorum told me. "That we should talk about high and lofty things. And when you come to Washington, D.C., and find out that isn't really the case, I think it rubbed me the wrong way and probably caused me to say some things and do some things that were more intemperate. That's unfortunate."
Something else was happening to Santorum back in the mid-1990s, and it occurred away from the C-SPAN cameras. Santorum says he went to the Senate and found God: "I had certainly been a Christian ... but it really wasn't the center part of my life. I mean that personal relationship and that center focus of what is the driver in your life every day and in every aspect of your life."
This started to change when Santorum began to attend a Senate Bible study led by then-Senate chaplain Lloyd John Ogilvie and to go to a church in northern Virginia with his wife, Karen.
He said he heard the gospel "like I had never heard it before. That combination for both Karen and me in our personal lives and for me in my professional life was just exactly what I needed at the time to grow in my faith."
Santorum said he began to believe God had a purpose for him to be in the Senate. He found that reason in the battle over legislation to ban partial-birth abortion. Santorum led the Senate floor debates in unsuccessful attempts to override Clinton's 1995 and 1997 vetoes of the measure. The bill banning partial-birth abortions became law under President George W. Bush in 2003.
In the midst of the partial-birth abortion debates, the sanctity of human life became personal for Santorum. His infant son, Gabriel, was born prematurely in 1996 and died within a couple of hours. Santorum tried to pray for understanding. "I was angry," he told an Iowa audience last year. "I had committed myself to the Lord. I was doing the brave and heroic thing of standing up for life, risking my political career in Pennsylvania, and this was my answer: You take my son."
That self-confessed anger showed up in public appearances, others noticed. Michael Geer, president of Pennsylvania Family Council, said Santorum knew he had a reputation for being arrogant, and "I've witnessed that myself at times and seen people not react well to it."
Santorum won reelection in 2000 but lost by 18 points in 2006, the biggest loss ever for an incumbent Pennsylvania Republican senator. Democrats tied him to an unpopular George W. Bush and ran against him State Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., the son of popular former governor Robert Casey Sr. Casey campaigned as a pro-life candidate, nullifying Santorum's social issue edge.
"Losing wasn't the worst thing that ever happened to me," Santorum told me, because it forced him to "look at myself. I don't think I was as nice of a person as I could have been or as kind to others as I should have been. I think there was a lot of focus on that I was doing important things and just was moving and rushing. I am not going to get in that trap again."
Geer of the Pennsylvania Family Council agrees: "His defeat that year was something that really taught him some lessons and really humbled him in a way that I think makes him a much better candidate now in terms of how to deal with other people."
In 2008 Santorum confronted another personal challenge that both softened him and reaffirmed his pro-life stance. When Karen at age 48 became pregnant with their eighth child, doctors recommended an abortion after a sonogram revealed that the baby had a rare genetic disorder that often proves fatal. But the Santorums rejected the idea, and Karen gave birth to Isabella in 2008.
Now 3 years old, Bella has defied the odds. "What we've gone through here with our little girl Bella has ... gentled my condition a little bit," said Santorum, who temporarily left the campaign trail in late January when a sick Bella had to be hospitalized: "When she gets just a cold that's a life-threatening occurrence, and it's very stressful. That definitely has had an impact on how I see my professional career, period. It just creates a real heart for those on the margins of society at least as society sees them on the margins of society."
Now that Santorum has a spot on the race's center stage, he is facing intensifying scrutiny about both his past and his beliefs: Accepts too many earmarks. Pushes for subsidies for dairy farmers. Lacks executive experience. News stories are spotlighting Santorum's criticism of Roe v. Wade and his defense of stay-at-home moms in his 2005 book, It Takes a Family.
Another firestorm erupted over Santorum's Feb. 18 comments that President Barack Obama's goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions is "not about your quality of life. It's not about your jobs. It's about some phony ideal. Some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology." Democrats accused Santorum of attacking Obama's faith. Santorum responded that he was criticizing an environmentalist worldview that elevates the Earth above man.
The scrutiny of Santorum will increase as voters in 10 states head to the polls for Super Tuesday on March 6. I asked Santorum if he would resurrect his Senator Slash image to survive: "I am not going to ignore when someone says some things that are completely out of line," he said. "We are not going to be a punching bag. We are gong to stand up and defend our record."
That may not be a direct answer to the question, but sometimes pictures speak louder than words. The Santorum campaign uploaded an ad to YouTube on Feb. 14, Valentine's Day no less, in which a Romney look-alike carrying a mud-spewing machine gun stalks a cardboard cut-out of Santorum.
The ad, called "Rombo" and which also aired in Michigan, ends when a mud blast lands on the Romney actor's white dress shirt. Then Santorum gives the familiar line: "I approve this message."
"I can't tell you how thrilled I am, how much fun I'm having," said Foster Friess. And why shouldn't he? Friess, his money, and his evangelical friends have helped to propel Santorum from also-ran to frontrunner in the last 90 days.
Since December, Friess, 71, has made four donations totaling $1 million to the Red, White and Blue Fund, a pro-Santorum super PAC. The fund raised $2 million in January, according to recent disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission. That's more than double what the political action committee took in during all of 2011.
Friess is not Santorum's only top donor: William Dore, president of Louisiana-based Dore Energy Corp., also has given $1 million to the Red, White and Blue Fund. Overall, the super PAC has directed more than $3.4 in expenditures toward promoting Santorum.
Friess made his money managing other people's money. Friess Associates began in 1974 and, like Santorum's campaign, got off to a slow start. But his flagship product, the Brandywine Fund, was a top performer in the 1990s. Friess Associates gained more than $15 billion in assets. He sold 51 percent interest in the firm to investors in 2001 for $247 million. Friess says he is a "billionaire wanna-be." Wealth-X, a research firm, says his net worth is $530 million.
A Christian since 1978, Friess has been a long-time supporter of conservative and Christian causes. His charity of choice is Water Missions International, a South Carolina-based relief organization that provides engineering for clean water in underdeveloped countries. He donated and raised millions for disaster relief following Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 Indonesian earthquake, and the 2010 Haitian earthquake. He's outspoken about his Christian faith and his philanthropy. "In the past two years," he said, "I've paid more than my total income in taxes and philanthropy."
Friess reportedly spent $3 million on Tucker Carlson's conservative website, The Daily Caller, and he's given at least $1 million to various Tea Party groups.
Friess typically gives his money in the form of challenge grants, using a robust rolodex to leverage his personal donations. But a freewheeling style sometimes gets him-and those he supports-in trouble. During the controversy over Obama's contraception mandate, Friess said, "In my days, they used Bayer Aspirin for contraception. The gals put it between their knees and it wasn't that costly." He later apologized, saying the comment was a "joke that bombed."
Friess, who gave $250,000 to a political action committee that backed Santorum's failed Senate campaign in 2006, hasn't ruled out supporting others if Santorum leaves the race. But Friess thinks Santorum is in to stay: "Newt is a visionary. Romney is a manager. Paul is an ideologue. Rick Santorum is a servant," he said. "I believe people are looking for someone who wants to serve." - with reporting by Edward Lee Pitts