Last night, I had got a robocall invitation to take part in Rick Santorum’s Minnesota tele-townhall, which ran from roughly 8:30 to 9:30 local time. Earlier, I had checked to see whether I could call in on the event myself, but was told that the calls would go out at random. Rep. John Kline uses a similar system and we get frequent calls for his outreach events, so it didn’t surprise me to get the call, and my wife was happy to get a chance to take a more active part in the process.
Santorum has decided to contest in Minnesota, even though the upcoming caucuses are non-binding. Caucuses are easier to win through ground game than primaries, which is the reason that Ron Paul has decided on the same strategy. Paul is focusing on Maine, where his brand of libertarianism will get more traction than Minnesota, while Santorum hopes to win the blue-collar Midwestern Republicans that Tim Pawlenty rallied in two successful gubernatorial elections. In order to do so, Santorum has to come across as serious on policy and low on intranecine drama, which doesn’t play well in this state.
In the tele-townhall, Santorum stuck to that tone. Most of the calls dealt with policy, including a couple of questions about the Obama administration’s imposition of mandates on religious organizations to cover contraception through health plans, which clearly did not sit well with the people on the call. Another caller asked Santorum about Barack Obama’s czars, to which Santorum replied that Obama as an “imperial President” wanted to avoid Congressional oversight and run as much as possible through executive fiat. “I won’t appoint a single czar,” Santorum pledged. Santorum took opportunities to contrast himself with Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich in his answers, but both the questions and the answers tilted heavily toward policy, where Santorum displayed a remarkable depth of knowledge and grasp of the details.
Only toward the end did a process question get asked, when a caller politely challenged Santorum to explain how he’d win moderates. Santorum replied that moderates don’t tend to be issues voters, but respond to enthusiasm and momentum, and that the important task was to rally the base as happened in the midterms. Neither Romney or Gingrich are consistently conservative enough to do that, Santorum argued, while his record gave the GOP the best chance to stoke conservative enthusiasm. He also said that he had a track record in Pennsylvania of winning Reagan Democrats, which he would do throughout the Rust Belt and Midwest. “Will I lose California by a wider margin than Romney?” Santorum asked, and replied that he certainly would — but losing California and New York by a marginally smaller amount won’t do the GOP any good in November anyway. Santorum insisted that he could do better in the center of the country than any other Republican, and that would make the difference in November.
Certainly, people have disagreements with Santorum, and quite a few don’t take his candidacy too seriously. However, the randomly-dialed Minnesota voters seemed impressed with Santorum, and Santorum responded with a detailed discussion of policy that eschewed the attack politics taking place at the top tier of the primary race. Perhaps it’s too late for Santorum to make a major play for the nomination (although Santorum himself disagrees with that assessment, surely), but you’d be hard pressed to hear a better pitch for a serious bid to lead the Republican Party — and most definitely a better, more mature, and more statesmanlike pitch than what we’ve been hearing and seeing from the top tier of late.