|A Day in the Life of Rick Santorum|
|Michael Falcone||Aug 22, 2013, 7:00 AM|
Michael Falcone/ABC News
By MICHAEL FALCONE
COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa - It's just before 8 a.m. on a warm summer morning in Iowa, and Rick Santorum is pushing some food around on his paper plate in the lobby of the Hampton Inn.
He is sitting alone at the head of a long high-top table wearing a dark blue suit and black boots. As it turns out, these will be the last moments he will have to himself for more than 17 hours, when his head will hit the pillow in a hotel room in Des Moines. Between now and then, the former Pennsylvania senator will travel more than 430 miles around the state, following an itinerary that feels a lot like a typical day here during his 2012 presidential campaign.
It may be more than three years before the 2016 election, but Santorum is already back in the state that traditionally kicks off the presidential nominating contest, and the one that gave him a belated victory in the caucuses last year.
ABC News recently joined Santorum, the once and possibly future White House hopeful, for a morning-to-midnight ride-along around Iowa. What became immediately apparent is how much he loves this place: the cornfields, the Pizza Ranch buffets, the Norman Rockwell-esque main streets, the county GOP chairs who treat him like a celebrity, the couple in Oskaloosa who let him stay at their home as if he were a member of the family, and the voters who still recognize him and want to shake his hand.
Is Santorum running for president again in 2016? He won't say - at least not until after the 2014 midterm elections have come and gone. But spend a day with him and decide for yourself:
Rick Santorum is off and running. He spent the night in Council Bluffs after a delayed flight to Omaha. His dinner last night: a McDonald's hamburger in Chicago's O'Hare airport. (Health food is not Santorum's thing).
His bags are already loaded into a Ram 1500 pickup (nicknamed the "Chuck Truck" after owner Chuck Laudner). It's the same one that ferried him around the state during the last election cycle. Naturally, Laudner, a former Iowa GOP official and political adviser to Santorum, is behind the wheel.
With Santorum riding shotgun and press aide Matt Beynon in the back seat, Laudner drives about 100 yards across a parking lot from the Hampton Inn to the nearby Ameristar Hotel, the site of Santorum's first event of the day.
"Oh, it's just right here?" Santorum asks as Laudner pulls into the Ameristar's driveway. "Then why'd I get in the car?!"
He's about to walk into a breakfast for southwest Iowa GOP activists. A non-descript but aggressively air-conditioned event room is set up with eight tables where about 30 people are up early for scrambled eggs, pastries and politics.
Santorum is delivering his standard stump speech (at least that's what you'd call it if this were an election year).
"I put my faith into Iowa," Santorum says, recalling his 34-vote victory in the Iowa caucuses - a win he was never able to fully savor coming as it did more than two weeks after Mitt Romney was initially declared the victor.
In an interview later in the day, Santorum will say that he does not know whether he might have ultimately captured the Republican nomination in 2012 had he been able to ride the momentum of an undisputed first place finish in the caucuses. But it's clear the thought has crossed his mind.
Santorum has answered every last question from the early-morning audience, and he's managed to convey a message of his own: "We're engaged in a struggle for the soul of America."
His conviction on that point has grown out of his new role as CEO of a faith-based movie studio called EchoLight, headquartered in Dallas - a business venture that takes up a lot of his time these days.
Santorum, who carries an iPhone in his suit pocket, is worried about the content that reaches people on their smart phones, computers, TV and movie screens. "Is the content created here in Council Bluffs?" Santorum asks the crowd. "No. It's created in L.A. and New York."
And with that, the former senator is bounding out of the room. "All right," he says, "one down."
But Laudner and the "Chuck Truck" are about a minute late. "He's a little rusty," Santorum jokes as the unflappable Iowan brings the truck around and steers it onto the freeway heading north. (Future presidential candidates take note: There is simply no better sherpa in the Hawkeye State than Chuck).
Once on the road, Santorum's first call is to his wife, Karen - his life partner, the mother of his seven children and his closest political confidante. Santorum plows through his morning call list; Beynon speaks in a whisper and the car stereo is muted.
Michael Falcone/ABC News
With 52 miles to Sioux City and tall stalks of corn flanking the highway, Santorum turns his attention to the Iowa landscape as he works on his iPad. "Corn looks a little stressed," Santorum declares. "Beans look good - seems like there's more beans this year."
But Santorum's concerns are not only agricultural. He has an appointment to keep.
Chuck Laudner parks his truck in front of the Cornerstone World Outreach church on the outskirts of Sioux City and Santorum walks in for his second event of the day - a mid-day screening of one of the Christian-friendly movies his company is helping to produce and distribute called "Seasons of Gray."
"It's a modern-day Joseph story," Santorum tells the audience that fills the church pews on a Thursday afternoon. This is just one of many stops the former senator will make over the next few months as he encourages the faithful to bring movies like this one into their local theaters and churches.
"I'm traveling," Santorum says to the parishioners. "It's like running for president. I have a little experience in that area."
Santorum, who became CEO of EchoLight Studios in June, says he's trying to "build our brand - kind of like Pixar."
"Everybody wants to go see a Pixar film because you know what you're going to get," he explains.
The Cornerstone church is familiar ground for him. He came here just before the 2011 Ames Straw Poll and spoke from the pulpit. On his way out after the screening, a woman shakes his hand and looks him in the eye: "The next president of the United States," she says.
After nearly two-and-a-half hours at the church, the Chuck Truck, which has close to 210,000 miles on it, is rolling down a dirt road to the freeway.
Santorum calls home again. As he will say in a speech to a county Republican Party dinner later in the day, the Santorums are in the process of remodeling their home in Virginia. Their five-year-old daughter, Bella, who suffers from a rare genetic disorder, is in good health and the family is upgrading to suit her needs. (Rarely is negotiating with a contractor a happy occasion, but in this case, Santorum says he feels blessed.)
Santorum's one-car motorcade (this is a departure from the days of rolling around the country with a Secret Service detail) is 10 miles from Le Mars, Iowa, and there is only one thing on the former White House hopeful's mind: ice cream.
"There it is!" Santorum exclaims, pointing out the window to a sprawling complex of buildings that is home to the Blue Bunny ice cream plant.
"Do we have time?" Santorum says, appealing to Laudner, who is keeping the day on schedule with the precision of a Swiss watch.
"No," Launder deadpans.
"Chuck is really putting the hammer down!" Santorum complains.
(What Santorum doesn't know is that Launder and Beynon have already hatched a plan to play a practical joke on the boss. There will, in fact, be time to stop for an ice cream cone. But first, lunch).
Michael Falcone/ABC News
If the Orange City, Iowa-based company, Pizza Ranch, were its own country, Rick Santorum would be its ambassador. As a candidate, Santorum likely logged more time in its ubiquitous franchises than any of his rivals. The Boone location even named a salad after him during the campaign.
Santorum, who has not eaten since breakfast six hours ago, is craving Pizza Ranch's famous buffet - the all-you-can-eat extravaganza of salad, fried chicken, potato wedges, desserts and, of course, pizza.
Unfortunately, Judy, a waitress at the Pizza Ranch store at the corner of Plymouth St. and Central Ave. in downtown Le Mars, is about to deliver some bad news: The buffet is closed. Santorum opts for a large "Bronco" instead - a carnivorous festival of beef, Italian sausage, pepperoni, Canadian bacon and, just for good measure, bacon bits.
"It's not bad," Santorum says, biting into a slice. "It's serviceable."
Then it's off to the main event: the Blue Bunny Ice Cream Parlor and Museum a few blocks away. Santorum can't remember exactly how many times he's been to this temple of frozen, creamy deliciousness, but he walks in like he owns the place and surveys the options.
"Can I taste the huckleberry?" he asks.
"Sure can," a cheerful Blue Bunny scooper replies, handing him a plastic spoon with a dollop of ice cream on it. Evidently unsatisfied, he opts for two heaping scoops in a cup - chocolate chip and chocolate caramel cashew.
He settles into one of the soda-fountain-style stools, and it's not long before he's recognized. "I think I saw you on 'Morning Joe,'" says one woman who approaches him. (She was actually recalling his recent appearance on "Meet the Press.")
A minute or two later, Gary, from Lincoln, Neb., comes bearing a yellow post-it note: "I saw you come in and I couldn't not ask for your autograph." Santorum is happy to oblige.
On the road again - north to Sioux Center, a town of under 10,000 people in the northwest corner of the state near the border of Minnesota and South Dakota.
"It feels very much at home to me," Santorum says of his day so far. "I come back to Iowa and I know people. I know their names."
The number 34 loomed large in our discussion over lunch. That was Santorum's eventual margin of victory over Romney in the caucuses. When asked whether he believes an outright win on caucus night would have changed the outcome of the Republican nominating contest, Santorum wavers.
"The money would have been different, the Romney inevitability scenario would have been different," he says. "New Hampshire would have been different. Would we have won? I don't think so. But South Carolina would have been very different. Who knows what Newt would have done then? Who knows what Rick Perry would have done then? There's all sorts of what-ifs."
"Could have been decisive, might not have been," he adds. "It's fun to think about.
Santorum finished a distant fourth in the 2011 Ames Straw Poll (behind Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul and Tim Pawlenty), and if he runs again in 2016, Santorum predicted that the straw poll - if there is one - would not be a major part of his effort.
"Personally, I don't think, if I were going to run again, that I would put a lot of money into that," he says. "I don't think it makes a lot of sense. We have nothing to prove there."
But, he notes, "If they have it, I'm sure we'll attend."
On the way to Sioux Center, Santorum, Laudner and Beynon are recalling the highs and lows of the campaign.
"Luverne - now that was a great night," Santorum says recalling an event he held in Minnesota in late January 2012. "It was lights out, unbelievable crowd. (In one of several movie references he will make during the day, Santorum compares the moment to a scene in the classic 1989 film "Field of Dreams.")
The Chuck Truck pulls into a chiropractic office in Rock Rapids, where Cody Hoefert, a doctor and the chairman of the Lyon County GOP, greets Santorum with a warm embrace. Hoefert helped organize this part of the state for Santorum in 2012, and it was he who invited Santorum to speak at an event in town later in the evening.
Santorum is also here to meet one of the state's GOP contenders for U.S. Senate - a meeting that lasts about 20 minutes.
Michael Falcone/ABC News
About an hour later, Santorum is the first to arrive at Sully's Grill on Main St. in downtown Rock Rapids for a private reception before the Lyon County GOP dinner a few blocks away. (Santorum observes that the town of Rock Rapids reminds him of the 1974 Mel Brooks satire, "Blazing Saddles," which is set in the fictional town of Rock Ridge).
There is no confusing the reception with one of the Washington, D.C., cocktail parties that Santorum sometimes likes to disparage. Instead of wine and beer, a table is stocked with an array of plastic cups filled with pink lemonade and iced tea. There are no miniature spring rolls or crudités, just trays of frosted cookies surrounding an American flag centerpiece. Santorum's signature, in black ink, adorns one of the restaurant's walls. He's been here before.
Over the next hour or so, Santorum mingles with party activists, Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds, Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz, Congressman Steve King, and former South Dakota governor and current U.S. Senate candidate Mike Rounds, who has crossed state lines to be here.
Matt Beynon, Santorum's press aide who was a spokesman for his presidential campaign, has a familiar challenge: Keep his boss on schedule. As the reception winds down, it takes some polite prodding from Beynon to successfully extract Santorum from the room.
Santorum takes his place at the head table in the Forster Community Center, which is filling up with several hundred northwest Iowa Republicans. The speech Santorum gives at the dinner lasts nearly 40 minutes, so long that he comes dangerously close to missing a live CNN interview with Piers Morgan. But he finally scoots into place in front of the cameras as dinner guests huddle around him, providing an almost campaign-style backdrop.
A line of supporters are still waiting to shake Santorum's hand. He knows he has a four-hour drive to Des Moines ahead of him, but he doesn't mind. (Paradoxically, he seems to have accumulated more energy during the course of the day.)
"The game is on," Santorum tells one voter. "I don't know whether I'm a candidate yet, but the game is on."
As we head south toward Sioux City, Santorum catches up with e-mail on his iPad. He glances up from the glowing white screen for a moment.
"Is this the fastest way?" Santorum asks Laudner, who might as well be the Rand McNally of the Hawkeye State.
"There's no diagonal across - that's the problem," Santorum says, tracing his finger on his iPad map along the L-shaped route south toward Council Bluffs and then east to Des Moines.
The former senator is hungry: "Where's the closest Burger King?" (he poses this question to Siri, the voice-activated iPhone assistant). He could have just asked Laudner, who pulls the truck into a Burger King drive-thru in Sioux City. Santorum orders a hamburger, and adds, "Throw an ice cream cone on there."
Back on the road, Santorum devours his vanilla soft serve cone first before demolishing the burger and fries.
He calls home to say goodnight, blowing kisses over the phone to his daughters. "This has been a really good day," Santorum tells them.
The iPad comes out again. Santorum checks on his fantasy baseball team (they're not doing too well this year) and catches up on some reading.
It's 112 miles to Des Moines, and everyone in the truck (except Launder) has been dozing off. Earlier in the day, I asked Santorum whether he would be willing to endure another "grueling" slog through Iowa.
"Did you get the sense, Chuck, when I was out here doing this that it was grueling for me?" Santorum asked aloud. "Be honest." (Honestly, Laudner said he did not.)
Another campaign of long days, late nights, Pizza Ranch lunches and Burger King dinners "wouldn't faze me at all," Santorum concludes.
Almost 17 hours and 430 miles later, the Chuck Truck is pulling into downtown Des Moines. And although Santorum is clearly tired (who wouldn't be?), he also seems ready to do it all over again.
What would it take for him to take another shot at the presidency in 2016?
"The big considerations are my family, and whether I'm the right guy," he says. "I tried my darndest to do a dispassionate analysis of the field and of Obama and I had a good track record of taking on incumbents and beating them and being able to draw the sharp contrasts. I just didn't see anybody in the field who could do that."
"If I don't feel that way when we get closer to this," he won't run, he says.
As for his beloved Iowa, Santorum acknowledges that the caucuses are far from the "perfect way to pick a candidate."
"But if we're going to keep the current system of primaries and caucuses then I think we have to give the campaign a sort of on-ramp," he says. "To me, Iowa makes all the sense in the world. It's right in the heartland. It's a competitive state. It's got a good tradition of activism. There's a lot of reasons to keep it."