PITTSBURGH — Rick Santorum scrapped his way out of the basement of the Republican presidential primary by forcefully arguing he is a pure conservative with a record of defeating Democrats. Having demonstrated this prowess in a swing state like Pennsylvania, he says, shows he can win in November.
But there's the minor detail of Santorum's 2006 U.S. Senate re-election race.
He lost by 18 points.
Even after clearing away the caveats — he refused to back down from support for the Iraq war and his Democratic opponent had a legendary surname — the landslide still rings loudly in Pennsylvania and undermines the central argument of Santorum's campaign.
"I wrote him off," said Joe Horton, 42, a psychology professor at Grove City College, a Christian school 60 miles north of Pittsburgh. "There were fresher faces. But he's shown tenaciousness. Super Tuesday will tell a lot."
A review of Santorum's record and conversations with Pennsylvania voters explains how he got this far, a doggedness first noticed on the high school basketball court, and why he may not go much further.
"All of us who knew him were waiting for the moments of the last three weeks," said G. Terry Madonna, an expert on state politics at Franklin & Marshall College. "He's gotten way off message. He's narrowed the prospects for expanding his base and he's retreated to the base he already has."
Santorum's problem in Pennsylvania was not contained to Democrats. Republicans had grown weary with his record on spending and his growing persona as a cultural warrior, espousing the sharp views on gay marriage, abortion and contraception that recently have leapt into the presidential primary.
In 2003, he likened homosexuality to "man on dog" sex, drawing ridicule from a sex columnist who made up a crude definition for Santorum's name and pushed it to the top of Google searches. A 2005 book he wrote blamed "radical feminists" for convincing women they had to find happiness in the workplace, a controversy that hurt him among women in his re-election battle. And Floridians may remember him from this era due to his insistence that the U.S. Senate wade into the Terri Schiavo debate.
"He got too preachy," said Marilyn Harrison, 80, who remembers Santorum knocking on her door in Mount Lebanon in his first Senate run in 1994 and being impressed with his vibrant attitude. In 2006, Harrison crossed party lines and voted for Democrat Bob Casey Jr., whose father had been immensely popular as governor and shared Santorum's pro-life views.
"Santorum is out of step with the day," Harrison said. "I'm not against family values, but I don't want him imposing his version on others."
Early in his political career, Santorum emphasized small government conservatism, not religion. He grew into the role after being elected to the Senate and was influenced heavily by his wife, Karen, who dated an abortion provider in her 20s but came to have strong views against it. Devout Catholics, the couple has seven children. The change in focus gave him a national voice, but some supporters at home say it came at a cost.
"He would go off on these rants," said Michael Monday, 51, who owns a shoe store in Butler, where Santorum grew up, and has voted for him. "It was like he was doing it for himself. I wanted him to focus on us." Now Monday says he likes Mitt Romney's business background.
Polls show Santorum, 53, leading Romney in Pennsylvania, but voters do not think either can defeat President Barack Obama. Just 13 percent feel strongly that Santorum could beat the president compared with 45 percent who feel strongly that he cannot, according to a Feb. 25 Morning Call/Muhlenberg College poll. The state has voted for a Democrat in every presidential election since 1992.
"I think my vote would be wasted (on Santorum)," said Bob Olsavicky, a 62-year-old Republican from Butler who also likes Romney. "I thought his career was over and was shocked to see him even go this far."
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Butler, less than an hour's drive north of Pittsburgh, is a middle-class town still rebuilding from the decline of the steel industry. Santorum's parents worked at the VA hospital and lived in an apartment on the grounds.
"He was the all-American boy, just all-around good guy, very polite," said Larry Goettler, a businessman. "We used to call him the Rooster. He had this shock of black hair that stuck up."
Goettler said Santorum's work ethic came through on the basketball court. "No one would describe him as a good athlete, but he never quit. Many times I thought he wouldn't get off the floor and he always did."
Santorum got knocked around so much he had to tape his glasses together.
"He was a debater. He could argue any point," Goettler said. "He was never rude about it, but he was very emphatic about it. He hasn't changed a bit."
Santorum did not grow up poor but his roots (his grandfather, an Italian immigrant, worked in the coal mines) have been an asset. On the campaign trail he has had a more natural connection with voters than Romney, the Harvard-educated multimillionaire. Santorum talks about bringing up all people, frets over the decline of upward mobility and has long worked on antipoverty measures.
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Santorum always earned low voter ratings from unions but he took positions that benefited the jobs back home. He voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement and for limits on steel imports.
Santorum pushed for a balanced budget amendment and helped enact welfare reform, but he also fought against cuts in food stamps. He supported a minimum wage hike and voted against others.
Taken together, the record shows a more nuanced history than the unwavering conservative he projects today. In that regard, Santorum lines up with Romney, who says he had to sometimes take positions as governor of Massachusetts that reflected the political landscape.
"When you run in a state that's got a million more Democrats, you have to find ways to compromise and build bridges," said Vince Galko, a state Republican consultant who worked on Santorum's Senate campaigns.
His protectionist votes were only the start of his problems with conservative activists, who saw him as a hand of big government. Santorum voted for the Medicare prescription drug benefit, a massive expansion of the program, and for No Child Left Behind, the education policy conservatives say imposed too much federal control on states. He bragged about the political pork he brought home.
"We're going back into 1990s and wondering why Republicans — whether they're from Massachusetts or Georgia or Pennsylvania — weren't pure and strict conservatives on spending," said Madonna, the professor. "Well, very few of them were. There's a new standard in place."
Longtime friends say Santorum's enduring quality is that he means what he says and that his religious views get outsized attention from the news media.
"A lot of the things he says are very common sense, but it's sort of become a sport to criticize him of late," said Heather Heidelbaugh, an Allegheny County council member. "For Pennsylvania to elect a Santorum, he couldn't be a wacko right-winger."