Santorum Presses Flesh With Colorado Voters

February 2, 2012
By

Gage Skidmore /Free Photos

LONE TREE, CO — To know Rick Santorum is to like him. That’s how he believes he won the Iowa Republican caucuses–by getting to know as many Iowans personally as possible–and that’s his strategy in Colorado.

Santorum spent four months getting up close and personal with Iowa voters before eking out a one-vote victory in the Jan. 3 caucus. He started his Colorado campaign Tuesday, which means he’s only got a week before the Feb. 7 caucus to meet, charm and cajole as many Colorado Republicans as possible.

Certainly he’s giving it his best shot. Santorum hit the Lone Tree Golf Club Tuesday for a one-hour campaign speech before a packed house. Afterward he flew off to Nevada for an appearance, but was back Wednesday for a day of campaigning in Arapahoe County, Teller County and Colorado Springs. He’s scheduled for more Colorado-based gripping and grinning Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

“His number-one resource is his time,” said Santorum field staffer Nathan Arnold from the campaign’s Colorado office in Castle Rock. “He’s the most accessible candidate by far.”

No other Republican primary candidate will spend as much time in Colorado as Santorum. The question is whether Santorum’s personal touch will be enough to overcome the tremendous cash and organizational advantages of frontrunner Mitt Romney.

“Sixty-eight percent of the people surveyed in Florida said they liked me,” Santorum told the Lone Tree gathering. “If the 68 percent of people who liked me voted for me, I’d win.”

It would help if Santorum could knock Newt Gingrich out of the race. Right now only Gingrich stands in the way of the Santorum campaign’s effort to establish their candidate as the principled conservative alternative to Romney.

“Santorum’s biggest problem is Gingrich,” said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. “Gingrich carried South Carolina and has a Super PAC, even if it only has about five donors.”

That may be why the Santorum camp’s first television spot in Colorado is a negative ad attacking Gingrich. Called “Deal,” the ad compares him to President Obama and Democrat Nancy Pelosi by saying all three support government bailouts, cap-and-trade, and soft illegal-immigration policies.

Romney coasted to victory in the 2008 Colorado presidential caucus, taking 60 percent of the vote to second-place finisher John McCain’s 18 percent. Still, there’s a logic to Santorum’s decision to go all-in with Colorado. The state’s political landscape and recent history offer Santorum some natural advantages, to wit:

* Colorado’s Republican caucus system is small enough to be influenced by retail politics.

About 80,000 voters turned up for the state’s 2008 precinct caucuses. That’s fewer than participated in the Iowa caucus. A low-cash but high-energy candidate like Santorum could realistically reach enough voters to have an impact on the outcome.

* Colorado voters are engaged.

After watching the GOP presidential race unfold on television for months, Colorado Republicans are eager for a piece of the action. Both Santorum and Ron Paul drew enthusiastic, standing-room-only crowds and a flood of local media in their first few Colorado appearances. At the Lone Tree event, the audience snatched up all the Santorum yard signs minutes after the end of his speech.

“So far we’ve seen what we saw in Iowa magnified by 100,” said Santorum staffer Arnold. “People in Colorado are really thirsty to meet the candidates and thrilled to be involved in the political race. He’s being treated like a big celebrity.”

* Colorado Republicans are willing to buck the establishment.

In 2010, a Tea Party-infused GOP electorate rejected Jane Norton, the choice of the Colorado Republican luminate, in favor of lesser-known but seemingly more conservative Ken Buck in the Senate race. That same year, voters chose Tea Party newcomer Dan Maes over a hobbled Scott McInnis as the Republican gubernatorial nominee. Then they abandoned Maes in order to vote for Tom Tancredo, who entered the race as the American Constitution Party candidate.

In doing so, Colorado Republicans showed that they’re the kind of feisty, independent conservatives who might go for a guy like Santorum. The difference is that Buck, Maes and Tancredo were all closely associated with the Tea Party in a way that Santorum isn’t.

Indeed, one of the most striking head-scratchers of this year’s Republican primary is that there is no Tea Party candidate. Without that kind of grassroots movement behind him, Santorum is less likely to generate enough support to pull off the upset.

“I’m not seeing that this year,” said Colorado Republican Party chair Ryan Call. “The Tea Party reflects sentiment among Republicans in a broad way, and I’ve not seen people coalescing around one candidate for the Tea Party or liberty movement.”

Santorum received a boost Wednesday when he was endorsed by Tancredo, Norton and Bob Schaffer. While Tancredo has some juice with the Tea Party, Santorum may be too closely associated with social issues than the economic issues at the heart of the liberty movement.

Linda Hoover, an Arapahoe County Republican precinct leader involved with the Colorado 9-12 movement, said that without a standard-bearer, the Tea Party’s top election priority has evolved from supporting the ideal candidate to defeating President Obama. At this point, Santorum isn’t seen as someone who can close the deal.

“I think the problem is he’s been hurt because he didn’t win his Senate race, so how can he go up against this mammoth, billion-dollar, Democratic machine?” said Hoover. “On a pure values basis, he’s the closest man standing, but I don’t think he’s gotten enough traction even with the Tea Party types to mount a successful campaign. When I see Santorum, I see someone who I respect, but not someone who can bring it home.”

Then there’s the Mormon factor. Santorum captured Iowa by winning over its most conservative voters, but many of Colorado’s most conservative voters are Mormon, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which they abandon Romney.

Santorum argues that he has a better chance of winning than Romney, given the former Massachusetts governor’s support for the state’s health-care program. “Barack Obama, in a debate or in this election, is going to destroy Mitt Romney on the issue of health care,” Santorum said Wednesday at his stop in Woodland Park.

It’s up to Colorado voters to stop that from happening, says Santorum, and he plans to connect with as many of them as he can before Tuesday’s vote.

“This race is wide open,” said Santorum. “This state alone could change the whole tenor of this race.”

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