AIKEN, S.C.—Rick Santorum is early. That's a good move, because it's lunchtime and the space for his town hall meeting, at the West Side Bowery restaurant, is almost full. So he works the room, making small talk and taking questions. After a few conversations, Santorum picks up a water glass and clinks it with a butter knife. Time for a benediction from a local pastor. When the prayer wraps up, Santorum helps to unwrap the sandwiches. "Let's go one table at a time—you guys, you go first." Twenty-five people load up on cold cuts and potato chips so they can size up a potential commander-in-chief.
This is the 16th trip Santorum has made to South Carolina since he started hinting that he might run for president. Seeing him in person inspires two immediate reactions: First, you understand why he isn't being taken seriously. Second, you question how fair that is.
You go back and forth on which reaction makes sense, because on paper a Santorum campaign makes perfect sense. He couldn't win an election in 2006? Hey, Romney and Huckabee didn't even try to, and Romney probably would have lost. (In Aiken, Santorum even points out that Abraham Lincoln lost his U.S. Senate race against Stephen Douglas before getting elected president.) He's too conservative to win? Republicans just don't think that's true, and if you want to belabor the point, get ready to hear about Ronald Reagan's two landslides or all of the Republicans who blasted into office last year.
"'So you lost your election in 2006?'" he tells the crowd, beating them to the punch with a rhetorical question. "Yes I did. Because I didn't waver an inch in a climate where folks were running for the hills, and no one was running as a conservative. I went out and talked about how we needed to win the war in Iraq when people wanted to get out of Iraq. … Jim DeMint, he'll tell you: Jim DeMint and I went to the floor and did structured debates with Democrats on how we needed to reform Social Security. … It's one thing to do that when you're a senator from South Carolina, and it's another to do it when you're a senator from Pennsylvania."
What else can the skeptics say about Santorum? He doesn't have connections or money? Neither did Huckabee, for a good long while, as he gathered momentum. (Although he did encourage the FairTax campaign to adopt him, and he got plenty of juice from their organizers.) He doesn't poll well? Nobody polls well against President Obama, except for Huckabee, who may not run, and Romney, who they haven't seen in South Carolina once in a year. Meanwhile, they've seen Santorum 16 times.
So what do they see? The Rick Santorum show is a continuation of the campaign that ended on Election Day in Pennsylvania in 2006. Santorum knows why he lost, but his anger at the unfairness of the loss simmers like radiation whenever he starts to answer a question. He seems to have constructed a palace of memory in which every pundit's slight against him is remembered. In Aiken, he reargues his answer to Fox News debate moderators on whether he thinks women should stay out of the workplace. (He doesn't.) He reargues a point he's been making in several interviews, including one last week with Slate's John Dickerson, that Obama's statements reveal he doesn't think America is great or exceptional. (In Aiken, all he needs to do to convince the crowd is point out that Obama said that "America was not a great country" until the growth of the welfare state.)
Santorum's pitch is reductive. It assumes that his audience is angry that Republican candidates aren't passionate enough about explaining and defending what the party stands for. This makes a kind of sense. A Republican voter can watch Fox News, listen to talk radio, read the Drudge Report, and then listen to the people claiming to lead the party who don't seem nearly as worried as they do. Not so with Santorum.
"Why do you think the left wants to get your kids at two, three years of age?" he asks. "Why do they want early, early, early, early education? So they can get you quick! So they can convince you to just turn them over to them!"
These answers start to have their intended effect: Santorum seems reassuringly worried. So the crowd listens.
"The Democrats' argument against the Medicare reform is that seniors simply can't take care of [themselves]," Santorum says. "They say, 'You can't give seniors choices! You can't give seniors options! You can't have them make decisions and take responsibility. You've got to do this for them!' As if when you turn 65, your brain capacity goes away! My mother's 92! She got an iPad a couple months ago, OK, and she's whizzing away on an iPad!... Are there people who can't? Sure. But don't, don't structure a system for people on the margins who can't. Structure it for the rest of them, and help those who can't."
In the crowd are voters and local Republican leaders who have been courted by other candidates but haven't seen Santorum before. He's clearly winning them over and starting to disarm them.
"One of the stupidest questions they asked, I want to ask you," says one voter.
Santorum's smile, which contains most of the essential elements of a grimace, is well-suited to this one. "OK," he says. "I assume it wasn't asked of me last night."
"No, it was asked of … what was his name … the governor, [Gary] Johnson. If you were a reality show, what would you be?"
The candidate finds his footing only slighter faster than Johnson did. "I don't really watch a lot of television. Certainly, being in our house and watching our family is something that …" Aha, he's come up with something. "I would invite someone into our house, because we have a new addition, she's three, and she was born with a condition named trisomy 18, which means she was born with an extra 18th chromosome."
So Santorum goes into the story of his daughter, Isabella. He makes shapes with his hands to demonstrate the genetic and medical jargon he's talking about. The audience is transfixed.
"I know you've heard the term Down Syndrome," Santorum says. "You probably know people who have Down Syndrome, too. That's trisomy 21. Down Syndrome is when a child is born with an extra 21st chromosome. That all happens at conception. What happens is, that chromosome pair that is responsible for the blueprint of your body, you're supposed to have two. In this case, this cell has three. As a result of that you get all sorts of mixed genetic messages, and things don't always work. Believe it or not, it happens—these trisomy disorders happen fairly frequently. And if you're a 13 or a 21 you can survive. If you're a trisomy anything else, you may not. Isabella was not supposed to survive. She's a miracle."
Santorum goes on at length about this. That's his answer to a potential softball question: a lecture/sermon about disabilities and the miracle of life.
The crowd leaves impressed; the woman who asked about Medicare writes Santorum a check for $35. Later, he'll appear at the state GOP's Silver Elephant Dinner in Columbia, and because every other candidate declined to accept an invitation, he'll get to give a long version of his speech to a captive crowd. Only a couple of people leave before he's done. The people who stay give him a standing ovation.
"I like him," says Dean Allen, a mutton-chopped Tea Party activist from Greenville. "I don't think we need to wait for anyone else. They're retreads."
Republicans participate in a straw poll after the dinner's over. Four hundred and eight of them cast ballots before heading into the warm night. Santorum wins in a walk.