Santorum Struggles To Finding His Footing In South Carolina

Jan 20, 2012
Originally published on January 20, 2012 6:54 am

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

We're waking up on a morning before a key Republican primary in South Carolina, and after a day when the field of Republican candidates went up, down, and up again. Rick Perry went down and bowed out of the race. Newt Gingrich rode a surge in the polls. And Rick Santorum went up, when it was revealed that he got the most votes in the Iowa caucuses, not Mitt Romney.

Iowa's Republican Party calls the contest a tie now, though Santorum trumpeted the news and hopes to repeat his Iowa performance in South Carolina tomorrow. Still, he's been struggling to keep pace in the polls.

NPR's Don Gonyea looks at why.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: On caucus night in Iowa, Santorum thanked those who supported his socially conservative campaign, and he said he was ready for battles ahead.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

RICK SANTORUM: Game on.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: But the game since then has been tough for Santorum. His poor finish in New Hampshire was a disappointment, but he pledged to turn it around in South Carolina, where he'd find friendly faces in a place that's often called the buckle of the Bible Belt.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: We pick Rick. We pick Rick. We pick Rick.

GONYEA: The Santorum message in South Carolina is the same as in Iowa. This event was sponsored by the Family Research Council, which promotes Christian conservative values in politics. The group's leader is Tony Perkins.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

TONY PERKINS: So I am honored to stand here today with my friend, Rick Santorum. Senator.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: Then came the pitch from the candidate.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

SANTORUM: You know, a lot folks will say, well, you know, all the candidates can check the boxes on all of the issues. But it's one thing to get in front of a podium and say I'm for marriage, and another thing to say, I'm for life, I'm for marriage, and go out and fight those fights. We're looking for someone who's willing to lead.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

GONYEA: But latest polls put Santorum well behind the leaders, with no sign of the kind of upward surge that propelled him to the top in Iowa in the final 10 days. One big reason: in Iowa, Santorum wasn't taken as seriously by his opponents. They ignored him. No more.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Rick Santorum, a corporate lobbyist and Washington politician, a record...

GONYEA: That's an ad being run by the Ron Paul campaign, this one by a super PAC supporting Romney.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Santorum voted to raise the debt limit five times, increasing spending and debt by $3 trillion. And he even voted to let convicted felons vote. So how...

GONYEA: The campaign in South Carolina is also shorter than in Iowa, and Santorum hasn't been able to spend month after month on the ground meeting voters here. And there's another obstacle for him in this Southern state: Newt Gingrich is from neighboring Georgia.

KENDRA STEWART: Oh, yes. Newt plays very well in South Carolina. He is a Southerner. He knows Southern rhetoric. He knows how to speak to South Carolina Republicans.

GONYEA: That's Kendra Stewart, a political scientist at the College of Charleston.

STEWART: He clearly understands the significance of Southern Pride, of the moral issues, and of South Carolina's appreciation for its role in history and the history of this country.

GONYEA: In that regard, Santorum, a Northerner from Pennsylvania, can't talk the talk the way Gingrich does.

Two nights ago, both Santorum and Gingrich appeared at an anti-abortion forum in Greenville. Conversations in the audience afterward underscore what Santorum is up against.

Nineteen-year-old Denise Shirley was there. She's a Gingrich supporter. I ask her about Santorum.

DENISE SHIRLEY: I think he's very pro-life, and I think he's awesome, too. He's my second choice. It's between those two right now.

GONYEA: So how do you choose between a Newt and a Santorum?

SHIRLEY: I'm just a Newt fan because of his leadership.

GONYEA: Her mom Kathy Shirley says so far she's undecided between Santorum and Gingrich. I ask if she's thought about the possibility that her two favorites could end up hurting one another.

KATHY SHIRLEY: It is a concern. It is a concern. I just still have to vote the way that I feel led to vote, the way that I feel that God has led me to vote.

GONYEA: No matter how Saturday's vote goes, Santorum is gearing up for Florida and states beyond. But South Carolina does show this: An underdog with little money can win in a small state like Iowa. But replicating that success gets harder and harder down the road as the states get bigger, as the contests come in quick succession, and as the stakes get ever higher.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Charleston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.