Santorum says losing Senate seat benefited him

Mitt Romney greets a crowd in Metairie, La. Although he has picked up more delegates than his Republican rivals, it was former Sen. Rick Santorum who was expected to win Louisiana's primary on Saturday. STEVEN SENNE / Associated Press
Mitt Romney greets a crowd in Metairie, La. Although he has picked up more delegates than his Republican rivals, it was former Sen. Rick Santorum who was expected to win Louisiana's primary on Saturday. STEVEN SENNE / Associated Press (Mitt Romney greets a crowd)
Posted: March 25, 2012

CAMP HILL, Pa. - Rick Santorum acknowledged to a roomful of Pennsylvania conservatives Saturday that he had lost touch with ordinary voters' frustrations after 16 years in Congress, calling his painful loss in the 2006 U.S. Senate race "a tremendous gift" that had made him a better person and politician.

"The people of Pennsylvania didn't always give me what I wanted, but they always gave me what I needed," Santorum told the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference. "It was an eye-opening, awakening experience for me, and I took that as a good sort of self-correction."

It was a crucial audience for Santorum and Newt Gingrich, who also spoke, as they push to keep alive their presidential campaigns ahead of Pennsylvania's April 24 GOP primary. The conservative activists, after all, are the types who put bumper stickers on their minivans and Ford F-150s, turn their home-school networks into phone banks, and pound yard signs into their lawns.

Both Santorum and Gingrich seek to harness conservative misgivings about Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is the front-runner for the GOP nomination.

But Santorum has become the leading Romney alternative, and he scored a solid win Saturday in the Louisiana primary, leaving Wisconsin on April 3 and the primary in Pennsylvania as his last best opportunities to stop Romney, who has a wide lead in delegates to the summer nominating convention in Tampa, Fla.

The 17-point reelection loss to now-Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) has been a narrative problem for Santorum in his campaign; he had alienated moderates and independents with his vocal championing of social issues and had angered conservatives by supporting increased government spending under the Republican administration of George W. Bush, particularly the Medicare prescription-drug benefit and the No Child Left Behind education program.

Losing, Santorum said, made him a better husband and father to his seven children. Working outside government for the first time in two decades helped him get in touch with anger toward Washington, he said.

"The greatest gift from a political point of view was that distance, to be able to look from the outside in at what was going on and to be able to see the frustration that I've been hearing from you, from conservatives - a frustration that, to be honest, didn't quite resonate with me," Santorum said. Before, as a member of the Senate GOP leadership, Santorum said, he was occupied with the "making of the sausage."

Afterward, supporter Pat Guarineri said she realized that Santorum "had to sort of play the game" in Washington by, for instance, endorsing moderate Sen. Arlen Specter over a conservative in the 2004 GOP primary. "I just think he's the best conservative, who will do what he says he'll do," said Guarineri, 60, of Millersville, Pa. "He's not going to pave over or fudge the serious issues."

Gingrich, the former House speaker who was born in Harrisburg, spent most of his 30 minutes blasting what he said was President Obama's reluctance to develop more oil and natural gas in the United States, policies that he said are helping to boost the price of gasoline. Gingrich has recently focused his campaign on energy issues.

"We need to have American energy independence from the Middle East," Gingrich said.

Santorum argued that the top issue of the fall campaign will be what he calls the freedom-killing threat of Obama's health-care law. He said that Romney could not provide enough of a contrast with the president because he enacted a similar program, relying on a requirement that individuals buy medical insurance, in Massachusetts.

"I've got a strong track record to show a stark contrast with President Obama on the signature issue of the day," Santorum said. Romney has ceded the high ground, he said, calling him a "decent man but uniquely disqualified" to challenge the president on the issue.

"What's his record on health care?" he said. "The creator of Romneycare, a government-mandated health-care system that is driving costs through the roofs."

Jerry Shenk, a conservative activist from Hershey, Pa., said he went into the primary process supporting Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a fiscal conservative who ended up not running. He now is comfortable with Romney as the nominee.

"Santorum lost me before he got here today," said Shenk, 68, a retired sales manager. "The only job we have this year is to replace the guy in the White House. And I believe that Santorum has been opportunistically exploiting social issues in areas where they play well to keep his campaign alive. In doing so, he is playing right into the hands of Barack Obama. Obama loves the sorts of distractions that these social issues provide."

In Pennsylvania, Santorum has been leading in the public-opinion polls. The state has a two-part GOP primary - the popular vote is a "beauty contest," but delegates run independently by congressional districts, their names not linked to a particular presidential candidate.

Romney, who has the support of much of the state GOP establishment, has a strong field of delegates leaning toward him, as does Gingrich, under the tutelage of veteran Harrisburg consultant Charlie Gerow. Santorum, busy with a small insurgent campaign in earlier states, had difficulty recruiting supporters to run. State politicos say it is possible that Santorum could sweep the popular vote April 24, yet wind up with a minority share of delegates.

Santorum won a straw poll of attendees at the conference, with 147 votes, to 91 for Romney, 50 for U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R., Texas), and 35 for Gingrich.

Former U.S. Rep. Phil English of Erie, who has endorsed Romney, said that Santorum should have been able to draw better from an audience of right-wing activists and that he was in a tough spot in his home state.

"Rick Santorum will have to go all in, cannibalize everything else in other states, to win - and he has to play here," English said. "Strategically, Romney has more flexibility in how much he needs to commit to Pennsylvania. . . . He can go for the delegates or go all in and dust Santorum."


Contact Thomas Fitzgerald

at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @tomfitzgerald. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.philly.com/BigTent

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