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Back in the USA, presidential candidate Rick Santorum consistently polls near the bottom of the Republican pack. But still, he presses on. Hoping for some new insights into the GOP contenders, we've been looking at how they launched their careers. Our series is called Job One. And NPR's Jeff Brady found Santorum's work life in his 20s tells us something about why he perseveres despite long odds.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Rick Santorum is best known for his conservative social positions, especially his opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage. He's also known for expressing what he thinks very frankly.

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RICK SANTORUM: Thank you. Thank you very much. It is great to be here, at a fine Catholic institution.

BRADY: Last month Santorum was at the College of Saint Mary Magdalen in New Hampshire. Santorum is a Roman Catholic, but that didn't stop him from criticizing the country's only Catholic president. Santorum commented on John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech in which Kennedy laid out his belief in the separation of church and state.

SANTORUM: ...Early in my political career, I had the opportunity to read the speech, and I almost threw up. In my opinion it was the beginning of the secular movement of politicians to separate their faith from the public square, and he threw faith under the bus in that speech.

BRADY: Faith is a big part of Santorum's political life, but that wasn't always the case. In the late 1970s, he was a leader with the College Republicans. Back then ideology was not his primary motivator. Santorum told NPR that he was in it for the game.

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SANTORUM: I think most people who would say they knew me in college, I enjoyed politics. I was someone who had fun with it.

BRADY: Santorum says that changed after he began working in 1981 for a Republican state senator in Pennsylvania. Steeped in the world of making state laws, Santorum began examining his own views. Sometimes he reached different conclusions from the senator - on abortion rights, for example. Here's his former boss, Senator Doyle Corman.

STATE SENATOR DOYLE CORMAN: What I liked about him is he would challenge me. Rather than me being the senator and I'm 100 percent always right, if he had a different opinion, he would raise it.

BRADY: At the time, Ronald Reagan had just become president. Though not a fan at first, Santorum says he began to appreciate many of President Reagan's views. The Rick Santorum the world knows today was almost formed. While working with Senator Corman, Santorum also was learning valuable lessons from the senator's wife, Becky Corman.

SANTORUM: Of the two of them, she was the better politician, in the sense of a political operative. I really learned grassroots campaigning from her.

BRADY: Santorum says he learned to give campaign volunteers real responsibilities, not just busy work, and Mrs. Corman says she taught Santorum the importance of getting as many people as possible to invest in a campaign.

BECKY CORMAN: You try to get a $5 contribution, if you can, because anybody - I don't care if it's a dollar. If they have that invested, that is something that they have given and it's invested and they're going to work like the dog for it.

BRADY: After five years with the Cormans, Santorum struck out on his own and ran for a U.S. House seat. He challenged a seven-term Democratic incumbent congressman in 1990 and won. He was 32 years old. In 1996, he stunned Pennsylvania's political establishment again by winning the race for U.S. Senate. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: He was elected in 1994, not 1996.] And he did this with bare-bones operations that faced long odds, says Terry Madonna, political science professor at Franklin and Marshall College.

TERRY MADONNA: You know, he's like a general who's marching an army without, you know, without a lot of supplies.

BRADY: And in the battle to win the Iowa caucuses in January, Madonna says Santorum hopes to once again stun the political establishment with his ground game. Already he's made a big deal about being the first candidate to visit all 99 of Iowa's counties. Again, Terry Madonna.

MADONNA: And it's his organizational talents that he learned throughout his career that he's applying in this campaign. That's, I think, the big takeaway.

BRADY: But in a field of candidates who tout their significant private sector experience - think Herman Cain and Mitt Romney - Rick Santorum has spent almost his entire professional life in politics.

SANTORUM: I actually think that's a good thing. You know, one of the things I've found is that people who have experience in politics generally make the best politicians.

BRADY: We'll see if Iowa caucus-goers agree in January. Jeff Brady, NPR News.

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