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Santorum, abandoned: Can a self-described 'tortoise' prevail against Trump's hair?

Dana Milbank

By Dana Milbank

Published July 14, 2015

Polls put Rick Santorum in 11th place out of 15 Republican presidential candidates. Given that next month's debate will accept only the top 10 candidates, that's like being the 11th person in line for a 10-man lifeboat.

But in one area, at least, Santorum is second to none: his use of the royal "we."

"We believe that our message is different," the former senator from Pennsylvania and 2012 victor in the Iowa caucuses said Monday morning at a breakfast meeting in Washington held by the Christian Science Monitor. "We have experience that almost nobody else in the field has and a track record that certainly distinguishes ourself from Hillary Clinton. ...We match up very well because we have matched up well in the past."

And what else do we have to say for ourself?

"We won by five points in 2000. ... We were the only conservative to win. ... I think we had a good track record of being able to overcome big election odds.... I think we have a pretty good track record. When we get to a general election, we can be pretty effective."

If Santorum is living in the first-person plural these days, he's just about the only one who thinks he's royalty.

While other candidates report huge cash hauls, Santorum is tight-lipped, saying, "We'll report the numbers at the appropriate time." And for the second-time presidential hopeful, averaging just two percentage points in the polls, not making the cut at the Fox News Channel debate Aug. 6 could be the end.

"How damaging is that?" the Monitor's Dave Cook asked Santorum, who smiled. "I don't really pay a whole lot of attention," he replied, noting that he placed fourth in an Iowa straw poll before winning the caucuses. "It turned out not to be particularly relevant."

Todd Gillman of the Dallas Morning News asked Santorum if missing the debate would cause "a death spiral of lost funds and support." "Nah," the candidate said. "There were debates I wasn't in last time, and it had absolutely no impact on the campaign."

Santorum came from behind to win Iowa in 2012, and he hopes the same formula will bring him to victory in 2016. But this isn't 2012.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a strong Midwesterner with a conservative record, entered the race Monday and already has a lead in Iowa. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who won the 2008 Iowa caucuses, didn't run in 2012 but is back at it in 2016. And, unlike in 2012, this is a crowded field with many conservatives, as well as loudmouths such as Donald Trump and Chris Christie.

The only way to break through the din (no candidate polls higher than the teens) is to say something truly outrageous. And Santorum acknowledges that in all of the debates in the 2012 cycle, there wasn't a single "memorable line that Rick Santorum said."

Evidently, political reporters already have formed their opinion about Santorum: There were seven empty seats at the 24-seat banquet table for breakfast. I asked the candidate how he could gain traction.

"I don't see any real opportunities for us over the next six months to break out," he admitted, although "I didn't see it six years ago" either. The candidate explained that "I'm the tortoise-and-the-hare kind."

But can a tortoise prevail against Trump's hair? "We have a lot of really wonderful people, and you may say, 'Well, there are just better folks out there and they're stronger' " this time, Santorum said. "That may be the case, but one of the things I learned is you don't know that this far out."

And so Santorum keeps campaigning like it's 2012, mentioning twice that he plans to spend 19 of the next 33 days in Iowa. Weak fundraising? Pshaw. "Four years ago, we raised less than $2 million . . . and we won the Iowa caucuses." Low poll numbers? Nothing to 'em. "I remind everybody that prior to the Iowa caucuses, we were at 2 to 4 percent."

But one key thing is different: Had they used the same standards in the debates last time, "I wouldn't have been included and yet I was on the way to winning the Iowa caucuses. So to me, it's a miscarriage."

Jonathan Easley of the Hill asked Santorum if he's frustrated that his 2012 support hasn't returned. "There are a lot of new models in the showroom," he said, yet "I think this model is a pretty good, reliable model that people are going to come back to."

We certainly would like to think that of ourself. But the voters seem to be saying something different: We are not amused.

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Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation's capital.

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