Relatable Rick

    Let us now praise Rick Santorum. Seriously.Before we proceed to the next round of Republican contests, let us pause to recognize one of the key reasons why he has risen from one percent poll status to major player.Gary Bauer, a supportive religious right leader, said it best yesterday: “Santorum has revitalized the art of retail politicking.” True that. Whatever we may think of his views, Santorum deserves credit for connecting with voters the old-fashioned way, for demonstrating in the year of Super PACs that a relatable candidate can trump big money.Never underestimate the importance of personality in presidential politics. I learned that lesson way back in 1992, when I spent endless hours quizzing voters coast to coast about the candidates in that race. Very few of them said much about the issues. They had issue impressions, bits and pieces of what the candidates were saying, bits and pieces of stuff that Congress was doing. They were far more tuned into the candidates’ personal vibes. If they related to the guy on a gut level, they liked him. If they didn’t relate, they didn’t like him. Early on, it was clear they liked the new guy, Bill Clinton (who spoke to their everyday lives in colloquial language) more than they liked the incumbent president, George H. W. Bush (who struck them as distant and aloof).Granted, Rick Santorum has gone far with a resonant right-wing message that seems custom-tailored to the conservative base. But a key factor is the way he has delivered that message. Notwithstanding the fact that he made $923,000 in 2010, he comes off to many listeners as an authentic, empathetic regular guy-next-door.A voter in Columbus, Ohio told a reporter, “I don’t know much about him, but I like his demeanor, I like his personality.” You hear that a lot these days. Somebody else told a reporter, “He’s basically down to earth.” Another said, “I think he is more like me. I feel like I can relate to him.”Nobody says such things about Mitt Romney, who can’t even talk about cheesy grits without leaving the impression that the line was market-tested. Nobody talks that way about Newt Gingrich, he of the lordly mien, who seems peeved these days that voters are not smoothing his path to Mt. Rushmore. (Speaking in Illinois last night, he huffed that the political process is too “deliberately stupid,” and that his opponents are too dumb to “comprehend,” his various Big Ideas.)Santorum has emerged as the main Mitt alternative in part because he scores with an everyman narrative. He honed it last year on the Iowa byways, and brought it to fruition on the night he won Iowa. The key passage, delivered in a soft, reverent voice, was about his immigrant grandfather: “He ended up continuing to work in those mines until he was 72 years old, digging coal. I’ll never forget the first time I saw someone who died. It was my grandfather. And I knelt next to his coffin, and all I could do at eye level was look at his hands. They were enormous hands. And all I could think was, ‘Those hands dug freedom for me.'”People who would never vote for Santorum probably dismiss such talk as mawkish cornpone. And, frankly, I doubt whether the young Santorum stood in front of his dead grandfather and thought, “Those hands dug freedom for me.” But it’s the visceral stuff that resonates with voters. A reporter for the lefty Huffington Post even said that if Santorum were to win the nomination, “much of the credit should go to those six powerful words.”Kudos notwithstanding, I don’t want to go overboard about the Santorum style. He has a long-established habit of uttering preposterous falsehoods, the latest occurring yesterday in Puerto Rico, where he told the locals that they can’t win statehood unless they first make English their primary language (“To be a state of the United States, English has to be the principal language”) – even though there is no such language anywhere in the Constitution.And he’s not in down-to-earth mode 24/7, either. At times he lapses into desultory Senate-speak, betraying the fact that he inhabited the Cave of Winds (“In the 12 years I was in the United States Senate, we went from the debt to GDP ratio, which is now over 100 percent. When I came to the Senate, it was 68 percent of GDP. When I left the Senate, it was 64 percent of GDP”), and that there were even senatorial episodes when he voted “against the principles I believed in.”But ex-Republican chairman Michael Steele wasn’t wrong when he recently said of Santorum, “Listen to that voice. Listen to how he draws you into that conversation. You may disagree with him on a whole host of things, but you’re sitting there, in the moment, and you’re going, ‘OK, tell me more.'”The big question now is whether Santorum’s retail politicking can neutralize Mitt’s money in Illinois, the next big contest on the calendar. Santorum may indeed be the Great Communicator in the Republican race (grading on a curve), but he has yet to win a major northern state. He can’t change the dynamic of the race, or begin to close the delegate gap, unless he finishes first on heretofore unfriendly turf. Relatability is to be prized, but it may not be enough.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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