Santorum's Latest Wins Spread Conservative Message

Rick Santorum surprised the Republican presidential field this week when he chalked up victories against front-runner Mitt Romney in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri. Few would have predicted six months ago that the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania would still be a contender this late into the primary season. To find out why he has been able to defy the odds, Steve Inskeep talks to John Brabender, Santorum's senior media adviser.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Rick Santorum has been written off twice as a presidential candidate. He struggled to gain support through all of last year, then surged to the top in Iowa. Afterward, he faded again despite the endorsement of some leading religious conservatives. Then, this week, Santorum won three states - Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri. Certainly turnout was low. Certainly his rivals didn't campaign all that hard and no delegates were awarded. But Santorum won everywhere.

Now, he tries to make that success stick, aided by a staff that includes his long time advisor, John Brabender.

JOHN BRABENDER: I think what's happening is is that number one this race is much, much more wide open than people had realized. Second of all, Republican primary voters generally want to vote for a candidate that they believe is conservative. And the senator has a record - a long record - which, you know, he sort of has lived conservatism and they trust it. I really think what this is signaling more than anybody is sort of a concern, an uneasiness, about whether Mitt Romney really has the conservative credentials to be the Republican nominee.

INSKEEP: Let me acknowledge what you're saying there. You don't want people to minimize these victories by saying, oh, he just had a good organization and it's just a fluke of some kind. You're saying that it has to do with what Santorum had to say. But I'm curious how you got that message out in the last few weeks. You just didn't have the money for the ads that Mitt Romney might've had, for example.

BRABENDER: Well - which is true. Mitt Romney certainly spent a lot more money than we did. In fact, I found remarkable - they sent out a press release saying we're still going to be the nominee, and one of the reasons we're going to be the nominee is we have more money than anybody else. And I was suggesting, kiddingly, that they do a bumper sticker that says Mitt Romney for president because we have more money than you. You know, not exactly inspirational words.

I think two things - the way we got our message out. Certainly there was, sort of, neighbor to neighbor talking to each other. Second of all, the senator was there and we did do some advertising. But I also think the debates mattered. And I think that that shows that even today in American politics, because of the Internet, because of the debates, because of how much news coverage, such as yourselves, that people do take the time, get to know the candidates, and it isn't going to be just who runs the most negative ads that gets the nomination.

INSKEEP: As you know very well, Mr. Brabender, there were Christian conservatives who met in Texas a few weeks ago, tried to settle on a candidate, and many of them did, in fact, settle on your man. Did Christian conservative leaders and groups help get your message out in these three states?

BRABENDER: I think they certainly did help. Again, you don't win a state like Missouri, where the senator won every single county and won by 30 points over Mitt Romney, you don't win a state that dramatically by just concentrating on one coalition. But without a doubt, the senator did very well among social conservatives.

What we're also finding is to win a state like that you also have to have the Tea Party supporters and even some mainstream Republicans. The only way you can win by that margin is to put all those coalitions together. And so I think that people are saying, look, not only is he the standard bearer of what we need as a Republican nominee, but I think people now are also understanding that he's the right one that can beat Barack Obama, which is very important to Republican primary goers.

INTERVIEWER: One last thing, we put out a call out on Twitter. I said that we'd be talking with you and asked people if they had any questions. And a guy named Mark Pittman sent a question. It's as follows: How do you balance energizing the base with presenting Santorum attractively to Independents?

BRABENDER: Well, I do believe Rick Santorum will have a message that transcends just even Republicans, but also include independents and conservative Democrats on a number of reasons. One is, overwhelmingly, people want somebody who's going to bring fiscal sanity back to Washington. I think that's number one.

Number two is Rick Santorum is really the only Republican candidate talking about bringing manufacturing back. He has a plan that will offer manufacturers zero percent taxes if they bring their manufacturing back from China and other places.

And so those types of things are very, very important to Independents and conservative Democrats. They want to know what's in it for the blue collar and hard working middle class Americans. And Rick Santorum's the only Republican talking with a plan to do that.

So I believe his message will be pretty wide spectrum. And I think people will also appreciate the fact that he has extensive foreign policy experience, particularly as this whole Iran situation seems to be becoming more concerning.

INSKEEP: John Brabender is a senior strategist and media advisor to Rick Santorum.

Thanks very much for taking the time.

BRABENDER: Oh, I'm glad to have this opportunity. And I hope to get to speak with you all the way through the November election this year.

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