Santorum's appeal? He resonates with angry tea party activists

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 28, 2012 

TROY, Mich. — The grass-roots anger and energy that fueled so many Republican political campaigns two years ago are still aboil, and Rick Santorum is the beneficiary.

That could give him an important boost as the GOP presidential campaign moves into more conservative Southern states this week in advance of next week's "Super Tuesday."

Michigan proved a decent venue for the tea party movement, a loosely organized coalition of conservative Republicans, to assert itself as a player this year. Santorum lost but finished a strong second as he tapped into a visceral anger that motivates voters.

"Are we a country that believes in big government? Do we believe in the smart and elite in this country to manage us?" he asked supporters after the vote was in. "Bureaucrats in Washington don't care about flyover country," the states between the coasts.

That message resonated here. Everyone in Michigan seems either to have lost a job, to have had his or her pay or pension cut, or to know someone who has. A lot of people blame big government for the economic inertia and want to punish the people who seem cozy with "the establishment" — people such as President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

"These are people who are very, very motivated and very mad," said Bernie Porn, the president of EPIC-MRA, a nonpartisan polling and market research firm in Lansing, Mich.

The angry conservatives are likely to be even more prevalent in coming days, as the presidential campaign moves into 10 states that vote next Tuesday, including conservative bastions Tennessee, Georgia and Oklahoma.

"They think the country's broke and getting more broke," said Merle Black, an expert on Southern politics at Emory University in Atlanta.

The tea party movement was credited with helping to elect dozens of conservative Republicans to Congress in 2010. But its record was mixed; it also helped nominate several Senate GOP candidates who proved too extreme for the general electorate, and cost Republicans seats their party had been expected to win.

Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, recalls that history when he tells crowds he's the best bet to beat Obama. But his electability argument doesn't go far with tea party activists. Romney embodies much of what this crowd loathes.

"He's the ultimate big-government guy. He represents the worst qualities of a politician, because he's willing to say anything," said Judson Phillips, the Nashville, Tenn.-based founder of Tea Party Nation and a backer of Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives.

Romney's resume as a successful financial executive, governor of one of the nation's most liberal states and son of a former Michigan governor invites populist suspicion.

"Romney's base is the chamber of commerce Republican, and they're generally not the tea party activists," Black said.

That profile is compounded by Romney's stiff, scripted style, a sharp contrast to the freewheeling Santorum, blunt Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul and unscripted Gingrich.

Romney keeps stumbling over off-the-cuff remarks. Friday, he addressed the tony Detroit Economic Club and noted that his wife, Ann, drives "a couple of Cadillacs." Sunday, his attempt to bond with NASCAR fans became another gaffe. Asked by The Associated Press whether he follows racing, he said, "Not as closely as some of the most ardent fans. But I have some great friends that are NASCAR team owners."

Both comments underscored an image of Romney, whose net worth has been estimated at $250 million, as a rich elitist who's out of touch with ordinary voters.

In contrast, Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, got big cheers with his populist pitch in Troy, a Detroit suburb where he appeared Saturday before a group of conservative activists.

"I didn't blow in the wind when things were popular with the elite," Santorum said, "because I don't come from the elite."

Such talk appeals to tea party followers on two levels.

They like the eagerness of Santorum, Gingrich and Paul to take on what they regard as sprawling, intrusive government. One of the most common complaints from Republican voters involves the 2010 federal health care law, which requires nearly everyone to obtain coverage by 2014 or pay a fine. Romney signed a similar measure into state law while he was the Massachusetts governor, and the give-'em-hell crowd won't forget it.

"I just don't think government should be involved in health care," said Vickie Kahle, a Milford purchasing manager.

"Romneycare is basically Obamacare, and this is a major issue," added Veronica Berryman, a Wyandotte retiree.

These voters also sense something genuine in Santorum. He may incite controversy by calling Obama a snob after the president said he wanted everyone to be able to go to college, but grass-roots Republicans like Santorum's candor.

Romney says he'd repeal the health care law. Santorum puts his view this way: "When they can get control of your health, they gotcha. ... Now you will pay tribute to them and give them even more power so they will give you more benefits."

That sounded good to tea party activists.

"We just have to get the government out of people's lives," explained Michael Ludwig, a activist. Deb O'Hagan, a West Bloomfield tea party follower, finds Santorum "in touch with folks, and he has that conservative record."

Romney's pitch is that he's best positioned to beat Obama and manage the economy back to prosperity. But the more the tea party crowd sees of Santorum, the more they're convinced that he's smart enough to do the job — and consistent enough to promote their values.

"And I'm more for values," said Mike Genson, a Highland plumbing contractor.

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