Why Rick Santorum is more impressive in person than Rick Perry: Character Sketch

Walter Shapiro

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa--Trying to find substance in Rick Perry's stump speech is like panning for gold in the nearby Missouri River. It is theoretically possible, but it requires luck, hard work and-- to use one of Perry's favorite words--faith. "I'm a Washington outsider. I'm not afraid to step on some toes, if that's what required," Perry said Wednesday at the kick-off of a 14-day Iowa bus trip designed to appeal to the conservative caucus-goers who are, as Perry put it, "taking a second look" at the three-term Texas governor.

Now that we have grown familiar with the Republican presidential candidates as characters in a long-running TV series, it's worth taking a look from a closer vantage point. Listening to candidates on the campaign trail can offer clues about how they would govern from the Oval Office. Granted, some candidates--like Rick Perry--do not make the job easy for anyone, voters or reporters.

The angry-outsider motif is the essence of Perry's candidacy. "Changing one Washington insider for another Washington insider is not going to change a thing," he says on the stump.  But it is difficult to take seriously Perry's claims to be just an ordinary guy from Paint Creek, Texas, when he also presides over, as he boasted, "the 13th largest economy in the world."

When Perry parachuted into the presidential race in August, he was immediately heralded as Mitt Romney's toughest rival. After a few incoherent moments behind a debate podium, Perry still had defenders who insisted that he was a natural one-on-one campaigner. But, in truth, after seeing Perry in both Council Bluffs and on my hotel screen, what he really comes across as is a great TV candidate. That is, as long as the venue is a paid commercial and not an interview or a debate.

A presidential candidate's stump speech is like a standup comedian's act--a from-the-heart statement of who he is, honed to a fine point through repetition, yet punctuated with improvisational riffs inspired by the moment and the crowd. Perry somehow missed that campaign memo. He repeatedly glanced down at his formal speech text Wednesday as he spoke to about 75 Iowans in a restored Victorian mansion here. The event was billed as a "town meeting," the traditional political term for a public question-and-answer session with voters. Town meetings have always been the hallmark of early season campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire. Perry did not get that memo either. He took no audience questions in Council Bluffs, although he did answer a few voter queries later in the day.

The glory of starting the presidential campaign in small states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina is that voters get a chance to judge the candidates on something beyond debate performances and 30-second TV spots. But Perry, who is the most visible candidate on Des Moines television, is doing everything backwards, reserving the substance for the campaign commercials. In his latest ad, Perry rails against "congressmen becoming lobbyists" and "Washington insiders … bankrupting Social Security." Curiously, neither topic was explicitly mentioned in his stump speech.

With fewer than three weeks to the caucuses on Jan. 3, this was probably the only glimpse these voters will have of Perry in the flesh between now and Caucus Day. In his speech, he raced through a few policy proposals: "Put that flat tax in place, close those corporate loopholes, create a part-time Congress. I think it's time to send them all home." Yet Perry never explained how he could cajole Congress into voluntarily relinquishing much of its power or how he could pass a constitutional amendment compelling them to be part-time legislators. Perry, in fact, loves tinkering with the Constitution (supporting a balanced-budget amendment, an anti-abortion amendment, advocating term limits for the federal judiciary that can only be achieved by rewriting Article Three), but he seems to imply that the required ratification by 38 states is a mere detail that can be handled by his staff.

I have been covering the Iowa caucuses since 1980, when I watched the first presidential candidate named George Bush do push-ups in a Des Moines YMCA to prove that he was "up for the '80s" and the then-68-year-old Ronald Reagan was not. I worry that the intimacy and substance of caucus campaigning is fast being replaced by the disembodied world of the TV studio.

If fairness were the reigning value of politics and if in Campaignland hard-working strivers were inevitably rewarded, then Rick Santorum would at last be basking in his moment in the December sun. Instead, the former two-term Pennsylvania senator--who has conducted more than 340 town meetings (all with questions but often with not many voters)--around Iowa has been reduced to urging voters, "Do not read what the pundits say or what the polls say." Santorum made this plea early Wednesday morning in Urbandale, a suburb of Des Moines, to 150 attentive members of the West Side Conservative Club, a group that will also be hearing Perry at the end of the month.

Watching Santorum, wearing a grey sleeveless sweater over a blue sport shirt, make his appeal at the Machine Shed Restaurant (slogan: "Now That's Cooking"), I grew nostalgic for the way Iowa campaigns used to be. The question-and-answer format allows Santorum to display a depth and a gravity that has eluded him during the campaign debates. Asked in Urbandale about the American reconnaissance drone captured by the Iranians, Santorum veered from the predictable script: "To be fair, I don't see how this is President Obama's fault." He also refused to pander to conservative boilerplate on foreign aid when he said, "I understand it's very unpopular — zero it out, start all over, we don't need foreign aid. But that is incredibly short-sighted. And it is extremely dangerous that the only way that we can respond to problems overseas is through our military."

None of this should suggest that Santorum, if he somehow got to move into the White House, would govern as a liberal internationalist. He veered right in his skepticism of the Arab Spring, calling Obama "feckless" for encouraging the democracy movements in Egypt and Syria and for joining the NATO air strikes over Libya after sitting out the pro-democracy protests in Iran. This kind of give-and-take with voters (and Iowans often ask more serious policy questions than reporters) offers an intriguing glimpse into the minds of would-be presidents.

In Urbandale, Santorum ridiculed armchair "pundits in Washington who have never even seen a candidate's speech in this campaign." Rarely have I ever silently applauded a politician's attack on the news media. But Santorum is right. Something important is being lost.

Walter Shapiro, a special correspondent for the New Republic, is covering his ninth presidential campaign. Follow him on Twitter at @waltershapiroPD. This is part of a series of columns examining what we know about the character and personalities of the 2012 candidates.

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