Monday, March 5, 2012

On Eve of Super Tuesday, Santorum Takes His “Game of Survival” to Memphis

Posted By on Mon, Mar 5, 2012 at 2:12 PM

After Mitt Romney, still the presumed frontrunner in the ongoing Republican presidential race, committed the much-noted folly of having a middling-sized crowd in Detroit’s cavernous Ford Stadium two weeks ago, it was probably smart — optics-wise, anyhow — for Rick Santorum, Romney’s chief remaining opponent for the GOP nomination, to try to wedge a small gathering into an even smaller space.

That’s what Santorum did on a surprise Sunday morning visit to Memphis, one which included a visit to Bellevue Baptist Church and a Catholic mass later on. But, when it came time to meet the media, the candidate’s chosen venue was Corky’s Barbecue on Poplar Avenue, where the local media and reporters and photographers from places around the world waited an hour for the candidate to arrive, then another hour or so while Santorum, his wife, other members of his family, staffers, and local supporters sat down, munched on barbecue, and carried on conversation at their leisure.

The prolonged wait, plus the jam of media bodies and cameras and other paraphernalia into the limited space that was unclaimed by the Santorum entourage and the usual Sunday lunch crowd at Corky’s , generated a fair amount of expectancy and tension — okay, call it “excitement.” Even a near international incident or two, as a photographer from France and one from Norway at various times wandered into other shooters’ lines of sight.

Given the venue, the trick, as one photographer explained, was to get Santorum munching on his meal — “Candidate Dines on Authentic Memphis Barbecue,” was the idea —in as dignified a pose as possible (i.e., without cheeks unduly puffed out with a mouthful of seasoned pork).

Among those privileged to share Santorum’s table at Corky’s was Fox-13 commentator Ben Ferguson, while at a nearby table sat Shelby County Commissioners Heidi Shafer and Wyatt Bunker.

As the extended lunch was finally finishing up (in fairness, it seemed somehow right that a presidential candidate, member of a species this year that notoriously has to eat on the run, was able for once to savor a meal in his own sweet time), a staffer directed the media mob to go outside and get ready for an imminent availability.

As they waited, the reporters chatted with each other in that studiously cynical lingua franca that often passes for conversation in media circles.

One traveling reporter offered up a pretend question for Santorum: “Romney says you’re not ready for prime time. Do you agree?”

That got enough of a chuckle to get the reporter to reminisce: “I asked Romney when the last time he took a paycheck was. He said eleven years. He went through the whole thing. He took it as a serious question. It was amazing.”

Turning serious, he mused out loud about the imbroglio resulting from broadcaster Rush Limbaugh’s calling an activist for birth control a “slut,” something that had landed El Rushbo in trouble with his sponsors and with his fellow conservatives and forced Limbaugh into making an awkward — and, some thought, insufficient — apology.

““I’m going to try to ask about Rush. Did he go far enough?” said the reporter, who acknowledged that he hadn’t seen the exact language of Limbaugh’s apology.” Neither had the two female colleagues with whom he was doing most of his talking. Each of them was also sending up trial balloons for possible questions.

It was about then that the woman who was Santorum’s press handler arrived and asked the reporters, who were standing in a circle, to create a lane of passage for the candidate.

Once he was situated, a sudden hubbub of media voices rose and then dimmed enough for his answer to the first question to be heard. The kernel of the answer was, “Oh, it’s been wonderful. I’ve had some real Authentic Memphis Barbecue.”

More hubbub, then the question about Rush. “That’s not my business,” said Santorum, somewhat summarily. (Oddly enough, a wire service story datelined Memphis would appear the next day with a headline suggesting that the Limbaugh question was dominating the campaign day, but quoting neither Santorum nor anyone else on the subject. Some memes die hard.)

Then came the obligatory question asking Santorum to size up his chances, with Super Tuesday’s voting then only two days away.

The candidate’s answer was an interesting mix of boilerplate, candor, and actual analysis:

“I think we’re doing fine. But look, every time we get into these races, as you’ve seen, Governor Romney goes out there and out-spends us 4 or 5 or 6 to 1. It’s going to take a toll, and it’s happening in pretty much all the states....

“This is a game of survival, and we’re doing as well as anybody in all these races where we’re first or second in most of the states out there, and I think this is going to be a good Super Tuesday for us. So, again, this race…for us to win this race, it’s ultimately going to be narrowed down to two, and I think that will happen eventually….

“You look at all the national polls, and we’re running ahead of Governor Romney right now. You look at all the swing states, and we’re running ahead of Governor Romney in the polls. [note: even as Santorum spoke, the polls were shifting measurably in Romney’s direction.] This narrative that Governor Romney is the guy that can beat Barack Obama — the only reason Governor Romney‘s winning in these early states is because he’s out-spending his opponents 4 or 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9 to 1.

“That‘s not going to be the case in the general election. He’s not going to have that huge money superiority, and at some point he has to have a vision and a campaign that’s connecting with people. We are. We believe we’ll continue to do so. We feel very good about our chances on Tuesday, and beyond.”

Another reporter, one of the two women who had earlier been bantering with the questioner on Limbaugh, tried a gotcha question of her own, asking about Santorum’s embarrassing admission, in his recent debate with Romney in Arizona, that he had ”taken one for the team” in having voted as a Senator for No Child Left Behind. Santorum dispatched that one quickly, also: “As I explained before, there were things I liked in NCLB and things I didn’t. That’s all.”

There followed a question about Santorum’s attitude toward educational reform. Citing the evils of “bureaucracy,” Santorum said, “We need to have education focusing on parenting children and local control of schools where we can really put the resources around children as best meets their needs, not what best meets the needs of the institution or the school.”

Santorum was asked about President Obama’s purported remarks, earlier that day, warning that “loose talk” about war with Iran could drive up gas prices.

“That’s pretty funny,’ said Santorum, who didn’t laugh, but went on instead to suggest that Obama might more properly be concerning himself with efforts “to open up supply lines across this country” and reduce American dependence on foreign oil. Suppressing a sniffle (Santorum has been nursing a cold), the candidate continued: “Loose talk of Republicans! The best thing that can happen in world markets is an Iran without a nuclear weapon and a new Iranian regime, neither of which he is doing very much about to make happen.”

“Last question!” Santorum’s handler advised the media scrum.

Appropriately, perhaps, someone asked the candidate to comment on the news, that day, that Romney had picked up a couple of key congressional endorsements — a fact suggesting that at long last the Republican mainstream, tired of the contentious struggle among rival presidential hopefuls, might be willing to unite around the suspected moderate Romney, whose difficulty in reassuring party conservatives had so far hindered such a development and encouraged the likes of Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and, for that matter, Ron Paul, to continue.

Quoth Santorum: “You know, to be honest with you, I don’t really call a lot of people and ask for endorsements. That’s not the kind of campaign we’re running. We’re running the insurgent campaign. He’s running the insider campaign. It’s sorta funny, you know, when he has all the establishment Republicans, hundreds and hundreds of lobbyists, basically, running and managing his campaign, and, of course, you’re going to get endorsements from people across the map that are with the establishment candidate. That’s pretty much what’s happened.

“We’re running a very different campaign, and we feel comfortable, as folks inside said. One guy says, ‘you got a campaign with normal folks working for you.’ And that’s what we do. We have just average citizens out there stepping up, volunteering and making this happen on, you know, a fraction of the cost of what Governor Romney is doing, and I’m actually continuing to be encouraged by the fact that I’m dong as well as we are and when this race narrows down we’ll come out on top."

Santorum concluded the group interview with the dogged fatalism that was evidently his theme for the day (and maybe for the rest of the way): “This is a game of survival.”

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