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Rick Santorum supporter faithful to candidate who fled Florida

Jeremiah Greenberg, 65, campaigns for Rick Santorum in downtown Tampa on Tuesday. After two weeks of hard work, even he could see Santorum’s chances in Florida fading, but he wanted to finish what he had started.

JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times

Jeremiah Greenberg, 65, campaigns for Rick Santorum in downtown Tampa on Tuesday. After two weeks of hard work, even he could see Santorum’s chances in Florida fading, but he wanted to finish what he had started.

TAMPA — Jeremiah Greenberg had second thoughts about getting out of bed. He knew he should be downtown by 8 a.m. if he wanted a good parking spot, not far from where he'd stand with his big sign. But a little voice in his head said: You've worked hard enough.

He made it to his feet, though, to the shower, to his gray Toyota Scion, where the bumper stickers long for a long shot in the Florida Republican presidential primary:

Rick Santorum

President 2012

He left his home in Citrus Park, but before he reached the Hillsborough County Government Center he turned the car around, still wrestling with whether it was all worthwhile. What's the use, after all? If the candidate himself all but conceded Florida before primary day, why should a solitary 65-year-old ex-hippie bother bearing the man's name on a street corner?

But he'd come this far, campaigning 50 hours a week for the conservative Christian who won Iowa, lost South Carolina and now stood to tank in Florida. Greenberg wore Santorum buttons on his chest and planted signs along Tampa's boulevards. He wrote 50 letters to editors. He even waved Santorum signs during Gasparilla, as the debauched paraded past, trying to pirate his placards.

He couldn't just quit now.

"I may be whistling in the wind," he said, "but I'm here to finish what I started."

Here, finally, his white sneakers planted on the corner of Pierce Street and E Kennedy Boulevard, 100 law-required feet from the entrance to the polling place.

The light turned green. The light turned red.

The solitary Santorum soldier made an unlikely portrait of persistence.

Greenberg was raised Jewish, yeshiva and Talmudical Academy and all. His parents were liberal Democrats. His father taught Hebrew and was the Jewish chaplain at the University of Maryland. His folks took him to events where they lobbied U.S. lawmakers for Israel and other causes.

But Judaism didn't sustain Greenberg, so he set off on a quest to find his own religion. He went to school at Temple University in Philadelphia, dropped acid and, suddenly aware of a spiritual plane of existence, became a hippie overnight. He read Be Here Now, the countercultural bible.

He bought a farm in Lincoln County, West Virginia, grew pot, read the Book of Romans and thought a lot about Jesus. He started a movement called West Virginians for a Better Society. He convinced a preacher to baptise him in Mud River and took his children to the Baptist and Methodist churches on the back of a mule. His parents changed their entry in Who's Who in American Jewry from four children to three.

The light turned green. The light turned red.

In the 1970s, he lobbied lawmakers in one of the most conservative states in the country to legalize marijuana. He even ran for the West Virginia House of Delegates as "the Golden Rule Candidate." He was unsuccessful in both efforts.

Then God told him to use his background to start Messianic Liturgical Resources, which he describes as helping "Jews and non-Jews alike" and which he runs today. He quit smoking pot and backed away from politics altogether.

Three decades slid by.

The light turned green. A young woman walked past. Greenberg made eye contact and said hello and showed her his sign. She walked around him.

Greenberg pays attention to politics. He reads on the Internet and listens to National Public Radio. But nothing stirred him to act until recently. He thinks President Barack Obama's progressivism is leading America toward socialism. He fears that Obama will use his power to erode the rights of gun owners, himself included. (He owned a shotgun to chase away thieves who tried to steal his pot plants in West Virginia.)

When Santorum won Iowa, Greenberg sat still for a few days, waiting to see what dirt the media could dig up. Nothing changed his mind. He liked Santorum because he wasn't a slick talker like the other politicians. He seemed genuine, a true Christian and a social conservative. When Santorum lost in South Carolina, it struck Greenberg that the campaign had failed to appeal to social conservative voters. It seemed to him that some conservatives were scared of wasting a vote on the underdog.

"The people in Iowa got a chance to vet the candidates for five or six weeks and they coalesced around Santorum," he said. "In South Carolina, the campaign failed to rally those same voters."

He called the campaign to see how he could help. Soon enough, his house was the western Hillsborough County Santorum campaign headquarters. He drove to Sarasota to see the candidate speak, but Santorum was a no-show.

When it was clear the campaign wasn't going to go all out in Florida, Greenberg decided to cast the race in terms of faith. He'd talk David versus Goliath. He'd invoke Gideon, and the 12 Israelite spies who went to Canaan.

Polls be damned.

"I'll go and I'll find the social conservatives and I'll prick them with the message," he said. "Have faith. Vote with your heart, not with your head."

After two weeks of hard work, even he could see the sun fading for Santorum in the Sunshine State. He's a realist.

He couldn't bring himself to quit what he had started, though, so he schlepped out with his sign. He paid a shop $30 to make it. He had to call the campaign to get the wording approved.

He held it up to his chest, just beneath the Rick Santorum button over his heart.

"Exercise your FAITH," it said. "Vote for Rick Santorum."

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8650.

Rick Santorum supporter faithful to candidate who fled Florida 01/31/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 11:12am]

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