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A Winning Message?

The neglected substance of the Santorum campaign.

Jan 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 17 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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If the ideological sophistication of Santorum’s campaign is under-estimated, so is his personal appeal. On the stump, Santorum typically talks for 8 or 10 minutes and then takes questions for more than an hour. He is relaxed, friendly, and often funny. In Northfield, New Hampshire, for instance, he was asked about his upbringing in Pennsylvania’s coal country. In response, he told the audience about his grandfather, an Italian immigrant who worked in the mines until he was 72 years old. “He was tough,” Santorum said with a smile. “He had scoliosis in his back and was sort of hunched over and was just a big, strong man. Smoked everything, all day long. Pipes, cigars, cigarettes. Had his whiskey in the morning with his coffee​—​he was just a whole different breed of cat.” For a politician who made his name in the Senate as a bulldog, Santorum has learned to play these moments with a nice combination of levity and accessibility.

Which isn’t to say folksiness. Santorum spent much of the last few years working at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, one of Washington’s most impressive think tanks. It shows. When he’s asked questions about Social Security, for example, his answers often wind past the 15-minute mark and include actuarial talk about bend points. It’s a testament to how nimble he is that audiences are willing to follow him on these colloquies.

And on top of everything else, Santorum is rhetorically shrewd. He treated his post-caucus remarks as a national introduction and delivered a strong speech. But as the Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney noted, tucked away in his remarks was a subtle contrast with Mitt Romney.

Where Romney likes to contrast his vision of a “merit society” with Barack Obama’s “entitlement society,” Santorum frames the issue differently. He says that Obama “wants to make [working-class men and women] dependent, rather than valuing their work.” As Carney points out, Romney knocks welfare queens, while Santorum worries that government is hurting the working class: “In both accounts, government is the enemy, but the co-conspirators in Romney’s account are the victims in Santorum’s.”

The machinery of the Santorum campaign is, at best, third-class. But the candidate has proven to be formidable.

Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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