DES MOINES, Iowa - Former Sen. Rick Santorum declared "a turning point in America" yesterday to a crowd of conservative Republican voters who help launch presidential elections from this early caucus state.
Santorum preached to the flock on issues close to their political hearts, promising a battle against terrorism, abortion rights and same-sex marriage. That last issue has drawn true ire here since the Iowa Supreme Court last April declared a ban on same-sex marriages unconstitutional, clearing the way for Iowa to become the first state outside the Northeast to allow gays to marry.
"This is what we face, really an attack on religious liberty on this issue," Santorum told a crowd that had just listened to a series of state politicians vow to undo the same-sex ruling.
Santorum, at times using a confessional tone, said he and others sometimes have looked at the issues and decided they're too large to tackle.
"That's not why you're here," Santorum said. "That's not why you answered this call. You're here because you're different."
Santorum was introduced by Ralph Reed, the former leader of the Christian Coalition who is working on a comeback after being snared in a Republican lobbyist scandal in Washington. Reed noted that President Obama won Iowa in the 2008 general election by 110,000 votes.
"I say that frankly to our collective shame," said Reed, rallying the crowd to oppose Obama, Democrats and moderate Republicans. "To tell the truth, that election was like a Harlem Globetrotters game and we were the team that showed up to get beat."
Steve Scheffler, a GOP national committee member and president of the Iowa Christian Alliance, said the group had invited Santorum because "he's a guy who supports our issues."
The alliance hopes to lure other prospective Republican presidential candidates to speak. Scheffler said he could not predict how Santorum would fit into that field.
"I think it's way too early to tell," he said. "I think it's a wide-open field."
The Iowa caucuses in January 2012 serve as the starting line of the marathon primary-election campaigns necessary to win the nomination to run for president.
Santorum in January sent a letter to voters nationwide who had contributed to his political-action committee, America's Foundation, telling them he was "actively considering" a run for president in 2012.
The letter, which asked for more contributions, touted a three-step plan to "reinforce our conservative allies" in Congress, help the Republicans retake control of the U.S. House this year and "kick the Obama administration to the curb" by winning the 2012 election.
Matt Strawn, chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, called Santorum a "consistent conservative" on fiscal and social issues who could create a lot of goodwill in the state by helping his party retake the governor's office in November. Iowa Gov. Chet Culver, up for re-election, is the state's 40th governor and 10th Democrat to hold the office.
Santorum last week skirted the issue of the 2012 presidential election, billing his trip to Iowa as an opportunity to discuss health care, national security and "the attack on our culture."
But looking ahead to 2012, fear could definitely be a motivating factor for voters and the political parties trying to lure them.
Politico.com reported last week that Rob Bickhart, finance director for the Republican National Committee since May, delivered a presentation to party donors and fundraisers last month in Florida, urging the GOP to exploit fear of Obama and his policies when seeking campaign contributions.
Bickhart was finance director for Santorum's America's Foundation from 2004 to 2006. America's Foundation paid Bickhart's Conshohocken-based firm $5,000 in management fees in September, according to a campaign-finance report. Santorum's PAC shares an office with Bickhart's firm.
Santorum yesterday called the fundraising presentation a mistake and said it was unclear what role Bickhart might play in a presidential run. The ensuing anger about the presentation, which has come from Republicans and Democrats, showed a need for GOP leadership, he added.
Critique of Obama must be balanced with alternate proposals, Santorum said.
"I strongly believe that you have to keep the debate aboveboard," Santorum said.
America's Foundation raised $1,249,091 in 2009. Santorum spent $1,031,344 on printing and postage for direct-mail expenses. He said the PAC sought to "grow our donor base" in 2009, using direct mail to increase its mailing list from about 17,000 donors to 35,000.
"When you do that, it's very expensive," Santorum said. "You have to send out a lot of what are called prospective pieces."
That sort of mail could also remind voters about a politician out of office for four years. Santorum lost his Senate seat to Bob Casey in 2006.
"Usually when you spend money on direct mail it's a reintroduction with the purpose of building the donor base," said Mark Holman, who served as chief of staff to Gov. Tom Ridge in Pennsylvania and later worked under him when Ridge led the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Holman, who was active last year in U.S. Sen. John McCain's run for president, said former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was leading the GOP pack for 2012 while Santorum was among the "dark horses" like Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.
"Romney by virtue of organization and time and experience is logistically a front-runner," Holman said. "If Rick decides to do this, he is a credible candidate."
David Girard-DiCarlo, who served as Pennsylvania state chairman for President George W. Bush's presidential campaigns and later was appointed ambassador to Austria, said a Santorum campaign would raise Santorum's profile and allow him to push his issues.
"He's a young man in politics. It does not surprise me that he's trying to retain some currency," he said. "There are many who think his ideas are too extreme. But he gets them out there. He gets it discussed."
Girard-DiCarlo predicts that Santorum faces a looming question about why he lost to Casey: "If he didn't win Pennsylvania, how can he win the United States of America?"
"Pennsylvania is my home. It's what I care about," Santorum said yesterday, adding that he still lives in Virginia but that he would not want to win the presidency without support from the Keystone State. "I always felt really blessed to represent a state that's so diverse."
Santorum noted that he won Pennsylvania for his Senate seat in 1994 and 2000.
"I won it two times and lost it once," he said. "So the odds are two to one that I'll win it again."
Santorum said he hopes for a "conservative who can win in the fall" of 2012 if he decides not to seek the nomination. He could not say who that might be.
"I think it's way too early to tell that," Santorum said. "If I had somebody's name on the tip of my tongue, I probably wouldn't be sitting here talking to you. I think it's going to be a whole new field in 2012."
Charles Kopp, who like Girard-DiCarlo is a lawyer at Cozen O'Connor, said a Santorum candidacy could be good news or bad news for Romney. Kopp, who was Romney's state campaign chairman last year, said Santorum could lure some of the party's more conservative voters who have misgivings about Romney.
But Santorum could help split up those voters if more than one right-leaning candidate vies for the nomination.
Either way, Kopp said Santorum's direct-mail spending is a smart political move.
"I think it's a good idea for Sen. Santorum because it accomplishes two good things," Kopp said. "One, it reminds people that he is still in the political arena. And two, delivering a message and asking for money is effective because most people who make a contribution have an invested interest and their vote usually follows."