12:01am

Thu May 5, 2011
The Spark

Santorum: A Talent For Politics, Honed In College

There are at least a dozen Republicans considering a run for the White House in 2012. As part of a series, NPR is profiling some of them to find out what first sparked their interest in politics.

In the fall of 1976 — the bicentennial — Rick Santorum was a freshman at Penn State University. He didn't know what he wanted to major in, so he signed up for Political Science 1. The course was called "Introduction to American Politics," and that's just what it was for the young Santorum.

"Part of the assignment for the class was to get involved in a political campaign," says his former professor, James Eisenstein.

Santorum had never paid much attention to politics. The only candidate he even recognized was a moderate Republican, running for Senate, whose famous name was on the ketchup bottle.

"He wanted to work on the John Heinz for Senate campaign, but there wasn't any campaign organization on campus," Eisenstein says. "I remember what I said to him: I said, 'Well, start one.' "

'Cool To Be Conservative'

Santorum did, and he discovered a talent for political organizing. Before long, he came to the attention of other young Republicans, like Phil English, who was then a student across the state at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Back in 1976, 1977, the Republican Party was not viewed as a particularly vital place to be," he says. "Rick had a sense of how to make it cool to be conservative on campus."

English recruited Santorum to start a chapter of the College Republicans at Penn State, and Santorum soon became a leader in the statewide organization.

"Unlike a lot of the typical campus activists, who are more bookworms, Rick was very much interested in the dynamics of organizing campuses.

"Not everybody in College Republicans liked him for the simple reason that he would tell people off — he would tell people what he thought," English says. "He ended up making a lot more friends than adversaries, but he always had the ability to make waves."

That would be true in Congress, as well. And people who knew Santorum as a young man tend to have strong memories of him, 35 years later.

"Oh, hard to forget," says Robert O'Connor, a political science professor who taught Santorum in a couple of courses. "He was an unusual student."

O'Connor also supervised Santorum in two independent projects. "I even played racquetball with him once," he says. "He slaughtered me, too, by the way. He's big, very competitive. He didn't play be nice to the professor — he just slaughtered me."

The Sport Of Winning Elections

Santorum says it was the frustrated jock in him that drew him to politics — he liked the competition. But back then, there was little hint of the strong social conservatism he's now known for. According to O'Connor, Santorum even asked him once if he'd have a brighter future as a Democrat.

Santorum says he was more interested in the sport of winning elections than what kind of governing might come afterward.

"I was generally conservative, I was generally Republican," he says. "But I was more of a political operative than I was someone who had strong convictions about issues."

Those "operative" skills were on full display in 1990, when Santorum ran what he calls his "somewhat miraculous" first race for Congress. Santorum recalls that he was going up against a seven-term incumbent in what was generally considered a safe Democratic district.

"I knew how to put together a grass-roots effort, under the radar, with very little money," he says. "And it turned out to be a pretty good formula."

Santorum personally knocked on thousands of doors, talking to voters and building a detailed database. He got married the summer before the election, so his wife helped out — and so did his old buddy from the College Republicans, Phil English.

"Every night, I was staying in their attic," English says. "I could hear them up late, in their bedroom, clacking away at the computer, just loading in every contact they had made."

Even though 1990 was a tough year for Republicans, Santorum eked out a victory. And four years later, he took over the Senate seat he'd once helped win for John Heinz.

Social Issues Take Center Stage

Some of the volunteers who helped Santorum in those early campaigns were motivated by his opposition to abortion. But for years, Santorum says, he was a "comfortable backbencher" in the abortion debate, focusing instead on welfare reform and cleaning up the House bank.

It was only later, in the Senate, that Santorum became outspoken in the battle over late-term abortion. Some point to his deepening faith as a cause, others to fatherhood. He and his wife have had eight children, one of whom died just hours after birth.

Whatever his motivation, Santorum was just as competitive in the Senate fighting abortion and same-sex marriage as he'd once been playing on the college racquetball court. And if that take-no-prisoners style made him famous, it also made him a lot of enemies.

His former chief of staff Mark Rodgers admits that Santorum's polarizing profile probably cost him in his 2006 re-election bid.

"The state was trending over time more Democrat ... at the same time that he in leadership was becoming viewed as more partisan, and more Republican," Rodgers says.

But five years after losing his Senate seat, Santorum says he has no regrets. The same hard-line position on social issues that made him a lightning rod have now become his biggest selling point in the GOP primary.

In a speech to the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition this year, Santorum recalled with pride his role in those contentious Senate debates over late-term abortion.

"After those debates, after I stuck my head out of the foxhole, my children — after reading the papers for years — used to think my first name was 'Ultra.' Why? Because I share your values. And because I fought for them."

Santorum is still a decided underdog in the White House race. But he has been in that position before, and won. Whatever happens, Santorum says he has already come a lot further than he ever imagined as a college freshman, sitting in the back row of Political Science 1. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.