Santorum's New Problem: The Media Caring About Him

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Jan. 2 2012 12:33 PM

Santorum's New Problem: The Media Caring About Him

POLK CITY, IA -- "Okay, can we clear a path?" asks Rick Santorum of the 20-odd TV cameras bearing down on him outside the Reising Sun cafe*. "I want to meet some of the people who were shut out."

photo (19)

This is new: A crush of media that prevents Rick Santorum from meeting his "constituents." During the Q&A, that, not "Iowans" or "voters," was the word the Pennsylvanian used to describe Those Without Press Badges. "Can I hear from a constituent?" he chided one reporter, barking a question about (what else?) momentum. "You don't have a constituent accent. I've developed an ear for the Iowa accent."

I got to the cafe early, and barely managed to get past the scrum. Packed next to me, wiggling between a table and a camera set-up, were nurses Brian and Marilyn Charron. They'd met at a hospital 35 years ago, gotten married, generally seemed like nice people. They spoke through gritted teeth about the 18 cameras inside the tiny caffeine joint.

"I thought this was for voters," sighed Marilyn.

A British reporter moved past Brian to add his microphone to an unwieldy Jenga stack of the things. Brian touched his shoulder, announcing that the reporter was in his way.

"If you are decent, I will put my microphone there and walk away," snapped the reporter. "If you manhandle me, I will not."

Brian calmed and the reporter walked out of earshot. "Asshole," said Brian.

Let's not get too focused on this. A media onslaught in the 36 hours before a caucus is the most natural thing in the world. Santorum's response, mostly, has been to gloat about it (he joked that some of the pundits counting him out were "in the room," not applauding for him). Gamely, he answered every horse race question he got. A typical answer: "We're feeling good." The more interesting questions came from constituents, who gave Santorum chances to unload on immigration policy, foreign policy, the weakness of Barack Obama, and the lameness of his opponents." He listed five priorities, then joked that he hadn't hesitated at all -- a jab at Rick Perry that everyone understand.

"He's attacking me," said Santorum, out of pity more than worry. He shared a story about Perry, at a debate after his implosion, listing three new priorities. "I was saying a prayer for him, because I didn't want him to go through that again," remembered Santorum. After Perry was done, he leaned over to Santorum with an aside. "I was taking a risk with that third one." Santorum's one verbal flub at this event was amusing and harmless. Chiding the other Republicans for not worrying about blue collar workers -- "many of them vote Republican, but we don't talk about them," he said they talked too much about theory. "They just talk about what economists from the Australian school want to hear." He meant Austrian. Whatever.

The Charrons nodded vigorously when Santorum answered a health care question, talking up savings accounts and Medicaid reform. (Charron had told me that Medicaid was about to become unworkably expensive.) I heard the most "yes"es and "that's rights" when Santorum got specific about why Barack Obama was so rotten. He got into the events of early 2009, contrasting the administration's failure to do... something about electoral protests in Iran, with the administration's support of Honduras's president. He was impeached, said Santorum, because he had tried to change the Constitution and make himself a dictator. "Three countries condemned the actions in Honduras," he said. "Venezuela. Cuba. And the United States of America." Oooh. "If I become president, I will never mention the name Barack Obama... blaming your problems on your predecessor is beneath the dignity of the president of the United States." Applause.

*Not actually a typo.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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