Santorum in Reagan mold? He may be looking to 2016

Posted: March 26, 2012

HE'S HOPELESSLY behind in the delegate count, and his campaign is practically hitchhiking to Tampa on nickels and dimes, but make no mistake about it: Rick Santorum is still running to be president.

At some point, he stopped campaigning realistically to take the oath on Jan. 20, 2013. The president who Santorum is running to be is Ronald Reagan.

And here's where it gets even weirder: The Gipper role that Santorum is auditioning for is the 1976 model - the year when Reagan lost.

Increasingly, the ex-Pennsylvania senator is comparing his all-but-lost-cause 2012 bid to Reagan's underdog campaign of 36 years ago, when the conservative icon narrowly lost the Republican nomination to the more-moderate incumbent and unelected president Gerald Ford.

Over the weekend, after evangelical voters in Louisiana boosted Santorum to a landslide primary win over delegate-frontrunner Mitt Romney, Santorum told supporters that "not since Ronald Reagan in 1976 has a conservative candidate won as many states as we have."

At another rally, Santorum again compared the 2012 election to 1976, when Ford was narrowly defeated in the November election by Democrat Jimmy Carter. "Don't make the mistake that Republicans made in 1976," he declared. "Don't nominate the moderate. When you do, we lose."

Why pattern yourself after a failed campaign?

Because Reagan - who took his challenge all the way to the floor of the 1976 GOP convention in Kansas City - failed only in the near term. In the long run, his audacious challenge to the Republican establishment - solidly lined up behind Ford - made the former actor and California governor a hero to the party's right flank, and it made him the front-runner in 1980, when he captured the White House.

Santorum - now branding his campaign rallies with the word "Freedom" - may see capturing the soul of the conservative movement as not just a consolation prize but a better career move than facing President Obama with a recovering economy.

At least on the surface, the similarities between Reagan-Ford '76 and Santorum-Romney '12 are noteworthy. Both Ford and Romney carried reputations as moderates and offended the right wing - Ford by picking left-leaning New Yorker Nelson Rockefeller as his vice president and Romney with his Massachusetts health-care mandate.

Both Reagan and Santorum started their campaigns with some devastating primary losses, only to embark on a winning streak midway through the race. An overlay of the states that the two men won - almost exclusively in the Midwest and South - and lost is particularly striking. Both 1976 (Watergate) and 2012 (incumbent Democrat) were uphill slogs for the GOP.

But none of that means a future Santorum presidency is etched in bronze.

Journalist Lou Cannon - who covered the 40th president and wrote several acclaimed books about him - knew Ronald Reagan, and he says that Rick Santorum, sir, is no Ronald Reagan.

"I respect Santorum because he's saying what he believes and he's got grit like Reagan," Cannon said in an interview. "But he doesn't seem to have the same sense of the moment."

Cannon said that Reagan clawed back into the race in 1976 with an upset North Carolina primary win by buying 30-minute blocks of late-night TV and talking substance - slamming Ford over U.S.-Soviet relations and for giving back the Panama Canal.

In contrast, he noted, Santorum gets sidetracked by odd statements - like his remarks on John F. Kennedy or college-education "snobbery" - and is focused on divisive social issues like abortion that were never at the core of a Reagan campaign.

Rick Perlstein, a liberal journalist and historian soon to publish a book on Reagan's 1970s rise, agreed that the Pennsylvanian doesn't measure up, but he said he understands why Santorum won't drop out.

"I'm very big on the idea that Republicans line these things up years in advance," he told the Daily News, adding: "I think all these guys are basically running for second place."

And why not? It worked for the Gipper.


Contact Will Bunch at 215-854-2957 or bunchw@philly

news.com, or on Twitter @Will_

Bunch. His blog: Attytood.com.

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