12:01am

Fri January 6, 2012
It's All Politics

Rick Santorum: The Underdog With A Loud Bark

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum is campaigning in New Hampshire after finishing a very close second in the Iowa caucuses. His success in the Hawkeye State was a surprise because Santorum was polling in the single digits there just a few weeks back.

For Santorum, surprising the political establishment is nothing new. Since he was first elected to Congress in 1990 — at 32 years old — Santorum has made a career out of being the underdog and usually winning.

Watch him at work and it can seem like there are two Rick Santorums: the pleasant guy who stands ready to help and the aggressive culture warrior. The former was on display when he interrupted his presidential campaign announcement last June after a woman in the audience fainted.

Santorum stepped down from the stage, offered her cold water and asked the crowd to "just say a little prayer for that young lady."

Santorum's Roman Catholic faith also inspires the culture warrior in him. Even when he talks about economic policies, his arguments take on a broader moral tone.

On Thursday the candidate spoke at a town hall meeting in Northfield, N.H. He used the language of drug addiction to describe his belief that Democrats want to hook voters on entitlement programs.

"That's how they see you, as people to hook," he warned the crowd. "As people to become dependent, on them."

Over the years, Santorum has inspired near hatred among some of his opponents. His strong views against abortion rights led Julia Ramsey to campaign for his opponent, Bob Casey, in the 2006 senate race. Now Ramsey heads the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Organization for Women. When it comes to Santorum, she doesn't even try to be diplomatic.

"I don't even think that he's probably a nice guy who does not share the same political ideology as I do," Ramsey says. "I don't like him."

Santorum has managed to offend entire groups of people — not just with his views but comments expressing those views.

After a 2003 interview with the Associated Press, he compared homosexuality with bestiality and pedophilia. In that same interview, he blamed the Catholic Church's priest sex abuse scandal on "moral relativism."

In October, Santorum even took to task the country's only Catholic president. At the College of Saint Mary Magdalen in New Hampshire, he commented on John F. Kennedy's famous 1960 separation-of-church-and-state speech delivered to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.

"I had an opportunity to read the speech and I almost threw up," Santorum told the small crowd, "In my opinion, it was the beginning of the secular movement of politicians to separate their faith from the public square. And he threw faith under the bus in that speech."

Santorum's reputation as an aggressive culture warrior developed over time. Back in the 1970s as a college Republican, he was better known as someone who enjoyed the game of politics. Then in the early '80s, he was known as a capable legislative aide to a Pennsylvania state senator.

In 1990 Santorum jumped into politics himself and unseated a veteran Democratic congressman. But even then gay rights and abortion were not among the big issues in that campaign.

Four years later, Santorum shocked the political establishment in Pennyslvania again by winning a U.S. Senate seat.

"One of Rick Santorum's secrets to success is simply a dogged work ethic," says Chris Borick, Muhlenberg College associate professor of political science.

When it comes to campaigning, Borick says Santorum is a master at the style of one-on-one politics required in places like Iowa and New Hampshire. As a senator, Borick says Santorum rose to leadership over two terms, becoming the third-ranking Republican.

"As he emerged as a national figure," says Borick, "it was the cultural matters that came to define him; and really create a world where you either loved or hated Rick Santorum."

By 2006 a majority of Pennsylvania voters decided they'd had enough. In a bad year for Republicans, Santorum's defeat was still notable. He lost by more than 17 points or 700,000 votes.

Borick says that for most politicians that would have been the end of their political career. But five years later, Santorum is back and still surprising people with his success.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.