Santorum holds on to Florida despite fading organization, visibility

Yahoo! Newspaper ConsortiumJanuary 30, 2012

Rick Santorum has been bouncing between third or fourth in polling among the four candidates in Tuesday's Republican presidential primary, not an enviable position in a winner-take-all election for Florida's 50 delegates.

Santorum did not announce his full Florida campaign staff until two weeks ago. On Wednesday, a spokesman indicated Santorum was halting his Florida campaign and pulling out of the state.

On Thursday, Santorum reversed that strategy, despite low turnouts at rallies in Florida so far; he later canceled some campaign events when his daughter was hospitalized over the weekend.

"You say his name is Santorum?" asks a telephone directory assistance operator in search of a number for Santorum's Florida campaign headquarters in Sarasota. "Let me connect your with my supervisor," passing the responsibility on a search that would remain fruitless.

On Sunday, Santorum stayed home in Philadelphia to be with this hospitalized daughter and canceled campaign stops in Florida.

The campaign says the former senator will stay with 3-year-old Bella, who has a genetic condition known as Trisomy 18. The condition typically proves fatal and Santorum often says his daughter wasn't expected to live past 12 months.

Spokesman Hogan Gidley says Santorum hopes to return to a campaign schedule soon.

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Santorum canceled his appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" and a stop at a Miami church. He is sending his 20-year-old daughter Elizabeth to Sarasota and Punta Gorda for campaign appearances on Sunday.

While Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are running expensive, statewide ad campaigns and the fervor of Ron Paul's supporters make him hard to miss, Santorum's visibility has relied primarily on his presence in the lengthy series of nationally televised Republican presidential primary debates. One of the most successful was Thursday in Jacksonville when he contended frontrunner Romney would have difficulty defending his health care record against President Obama.

"What Governor Romney just said is that government-run top-down medicine is working pretty well in Massachusetts and he supports it," Santorum said.

"Now, think about what that means — going up against Barack Obama, who you are going to claim, well, top-down government-run medicine on the federal level doesn't work and we should repeal it.

"And he's going to say, wait a minute, governor. You just said that top-down government-run medicine in Massachusetts works well."

Santorum's image largely has been shaped by news accounts of extremely conservative positions on volatile social issues during campaign stops and interviews, including Florida stops last week.

Santorum's low poll numbers in Florida are a far cry from his upset victory in the Iowa caucuses over Romney — albeit by 34 votes in a tabulation first called for Romney. That strong showing helped resurrect his political career from a 700,000-plus vote defeat in his 2006 bid for re-election to the U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania.

With Santorum, Romney and Gingrich each owning a victory from the first three Republican vote counts, Florida was billed by some as the opportunity for one of the candidates to gain momentum from a large Republican electorate toward the March 6, Super Tuesday elections in 11 states.

After a surprisingly nondescript performance in the televised debate from Tampa on Monday night, slipping from stronger showings in debates in South Carolina, conventional political wisdom held that Santorum was at best staking out an opportunity to become a vice presidential candidate.

The long shot would be for Santorum to remain in contention if Romney and Gingrich knocked out each other in their ongoing exchange of heavyweight salvos.

Paul also has a place on the Florida Republican ballot, although he eschewed campaigning in the state given his unlikely prospects to win any delegates the way the Florida delegate votes are structured.

Santorum's conservatism on social issues has both earned him some of his strongest support from like-minded voters and alienated him from many others.

In a lengthy interview on Jan. 20 with CNN's Piers Morgan, Santorum stressed that abortion should be illegal even in cases of incest or rape.

"As horrible as the way that son or daughter was created, it still is her child," Santorum said. "And whether she has that child or doesn't, it will always be her child.

"I think the right approach is to accept this horribly created – in the sense of rape – but nevertheless a gift in a very broken way, the gift of human life, and accept what God has given to you."

Stacy Feiler, a Hillsborough County Republican executive committee member, is the Santorum campaign's tea party/912 Project outreach leader.

"I met Rick last year in Orlando and really liked how he came across one-on-one as sincere and honest and on issues important to a Catholic voter like me," said Feiler, the mother of six children.

"Meeting him hit me in my heart. Every candidate has flaws and has some wonderful things. Rick touched me personally as a voter and I got excited to campaign for him."

Santorum, though, is expected to lose much of the tea party vote to Gingrich and Paul. In a Quinnipiac poll released Friday, Santorum was polling fourth in Florida with 12 percent compared to 14 percent for Paul, 29 percent for Gingrich and 38 percent for Romney.

Yet, re-energized by his Thursday debate showing, which MSNBC progressive pundit Lawrence O'Donnell acknowledged on his debate recap as a success, Santorum by Friday had crafted a plan to return to his home state of Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., for fund-raisers.

The Associated Press contributed to this report