At 53, Rick Santorum is a comparative political stripling. After his surge from nowhere to the brink of victory in Iowa, he is being promoted by his conservative supporters as the fresh-faced Great New Hope of the Republican party.
In truth though, he’s been around for decades – indeed, of the current GOP field, only the former House Speaker Newt Gingrich can more justifiably be tarred with that dreaded label of ‘Washington insider.’
But his success should not be a surprise. From the outset of his career, Santorum has specialised in upsets. He first entered Congress after a spectacular win in 1990 over a seven-term incumbent in a seemingly solid Democratic district in the Pittsburgh suburbs. Four years later, at just 36, he became the junior US Senator for Pennsylvania after defeating another incumbent, the Kennedy-era civil rights activist Harris Wofford who was almost twice his age, in another triumph of fearless youth over gentlemanly experience.
That victory came in 1994, the year of the Gingrich-led ‘Republican revolution’ and Santorum was the revolution’s spearhead in the Senate. His brash, sharp-elbowed style won him few friends in that courtly and tradition-bound institution. Within a month of his arrival, he had the temerity to pick a fight with Democratic grandee Robert Byrd (who had entered the chamber in 1958, the year Santorum was born). “Santorum, that’s Latin for asshole,” was the reported quip of Nebraska Democrat Bob Kerrey, that summed up a widespread distaste for the newcomer.
Over the years however the young pup mellowed. A first sign came in 1996 when he worked across the aisle to secure passage of the controversial Republican-sponsored welfare reform that was signed into law by Bill Clinton. Santorum’s ascent thereafter was rapid; after winning a second term, he became chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, promoting the party’s new inroads into Washington’s lobbying industry, long dominated by Democrats.
Nor did he conceal his ambitions: Santorum briefly considered a shot at the leadership, before announcing that if re-elected in 2006 he would seek the No 2. Senate post of Republican whip. But it was not to be. That November he was crushed 59-41 by his Democratic opponent Bob Casey Jr. Pennsylvania’s youngest ever Senator had suffered the biggest ever defeat by a Republican incumbent in the state. Far from calling it a day however, he gradually set his sights on the biggest political prize of all.
In Iowa he operated as he had in his first Congressional campaign 22 years before: spending months on the ground, knocking on doors, meeting virtually every voter and enlisting a small army of helpers, most of whom shared his social conservative views, above all his ferocious opposition to abortion and gay rights.
The road however is about to get far harder. Money may belatedly flow in the Santorum coffers. But having concentrated almost exclusively on Iowa, he must now set up a campaign infrastructure across the country virtually from scratch, in a matter of weeks at most.
To be sure, after yesterday’s withdrawal of Michele Bachmann and the poor Iowa showing of Rick Perry, he is positioned to become the main conservative opponent to Mitt Romney, the party establishment’s anointed standardbearer: indeed, Santorum’s new momentum, coupled with his strong Christian credentials, might propel him to victory on January 21 in the bible-belt state of South Carolina (although he is a Catholic).
But Romney, prepared for the long haul, has a national organisation that no rival cannot emulate. Nor has Santorum faced the media scrutiny that his long obscurity allowed him to escape until now. As the Iowa results came in, Santorum told supporters he had prevailed thanks to “the daily grace that comes from God.” But if he is to become the Republican nominee to face Barack Obama, more than daily grace will be required. It will take a miracle.
Iowa in numbers
$113 The amount spent per vote by Mitt Romney during campaigning in the Iowa caucus.
1.65 Despite spending a mere $1.65 for each vote, Rick Santorum lost to Mitt Romney by only eight votes.
817 The amount per vote, in dollars, spent by Rick Perry, who won only 10 per cent of the poll.