POLITICS

Underfunded And Barely Acknowledged, Rick Santorum Is Still Grinding It Out In Iowa

NEW YORK -- Rick Santorum looked like a politician. Dressed in a navy-blue suit with an American flag pin adorning the lapel, a starched white shirt and red tie, he also wore the summer tan of someone who had spent a lot of time over the last few weeks around farms and county fairs in Iowa.

Yet during a half-hour interview at a crowded Midtown Manhattan Starbucks on Wednesday afternoon, not one patron appeared to recognize the runner-up for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. No one asked to shake his hand, nor did they want to take a selfie or challenge the arch-social conservative on his policy views.

In fairness, this wasn’t Taylor Swift, and Santorum may have drawn attention in a more conservative locale. Nonetheless, it was telling that there was nary a side-eyed glance at the former Pennsylvania senator, who rode a surprising victory in the Iowa caucuses to the perhaps unsatisfactory title of last Republican standing against Mitt Romney in 2012.

That lack of interest, in a nutshell, remains Santorum’s biggest hurdle, as he struggles for scarce oxygen in a 2016 GOP field that is far deeper than it was four years ago.

After a long day of interviews, and with more on his schedule to come later that evening, Santorum appeared tired and not especially eager to answer yet another round of questions about his viability as a candidate. But this was a man who was almost universally discounted before he ended up giving Romney his most serious scare of the 2012 primary season, and he insisted that he could replicate that feat this time around.

“I always say you can lose the election right now -- you can’t win it,” Santorum said. “We have a strong economic message that connects to voters. I think most voters understand and know how solid I am on moral and cultural issues, and if they’re looking for someone with experience, I think I bring that to the table, too. So I think we’re positioned pretty well.”

The happy talk notwithstanding, Santorum’s most immediate problem is a familiar one: money.

After his campaign raised an anemic $607,000 during his first month and three days as a candidate, it promptly blew through most of it, leaving the former Pennsylvania senator, as of June 30, with a paltry $232,000 to work with.

“We have enough money to do what we need to do,” Santorum insisted. “We’ve just got to raise the number that we need, and then I can spend the rest of the time doing what I need to do, which is to effectively compete in Iowa.”

Yet even in Iowa, site of his 2012 triumph, Santorum has thus far been polling near the back of the GOP pack.

Perhaps of even more immediate concern is his standing just outside the top 10 Republican candidates nationally, leaving him with little shot of making the cut for the first debate in Ohio next month, since he can’t afford to advertise nationally to boost his profile.

He has criticized Fox News' decision to use an average of national polls to determine which 10 candidates are awarded podiums on that debate stage in Cleveland. But he also claimed to be unconcerned about the ramifications of being left out of the two-hour debate, in which time constraints and the overwhelming specter of Donald Trump may leave other candidates with little room to maneuver.

“You’re probably talking six or seven minutes per person, at most, and so it comes down to one-liners,” Santorum said. “With every subject matter, they’ll have a one-liner, and they’ll try to get their one-liner in.”

He put on a bemused, if slightly irritated expression. “Wow, that’s a great way to determine who should be president of the United States,” he said.

As much as his demeanor hinted at his frustration over not being recognized, either by the media or by voters, as a top-tier candidate, there is a part of him that continues to embrace the underdog role.

After all, he wouldn’t keep slogging through one rural Iowa enclave after another — he’s already hit 48 of the state’s 99 counties this year — if he didn’t think there was at least a chance that he could pick up an inside straight once again in a campaign in which 20,000 votes in the Iowa caucuses might be more than enough to win.

“Some people may drop out simply because there’s no air — they’re not getting into the debates, they’re not raising any money, and they’re not getting much attention. And so, there may be a point where you say, ‘Enough’s enough,'" he said.

"But I had someone come up to me from Iowa who said, ‘You know, you’re the reason for all these candidates. What you did four years ago -- you’re the patron saint of the forgotten candidate,’" he added. "And for me, the more the merrier.”