Rick Santorum surprised the Republican presidential field again this week, chalking up victories against front-runner Mitt Romney in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri. Very few pundits would have predicted six months ago that the former Pennsylvania senator would still be a contender this late into the primary season. So what's his secret and can he keep it up?
To get some of those answers, NPR's Steve Inskeep spoke with Santorum strategist John Brabender on Friday's Morning Edition.
"This race is much, much more wide open than people have realized," Brabender said. "Republican primary voters generally want to vote for a candidate that they believe is conservative and the senator has a record, a long record ... and they trust it."
Brabender went on to say that "this is signaling a concern, an uneasiness about whether Mitt Romney really has the conservative credentials to be the Republican nominee."
Although Romney has a much larger campaign war chest than Santorum, Brabender said that was not a good rationale for his candidacy. "Mitt Romney certainly spent a lot more money than we did," he said, joking that Romney should have a campaign bumpersticker: "Mitt Romney for president because we have more money than you."
How did Santorum manage to get his message out with scarce resources, Inskeep asked?
The campaign relied on getting its message out "neighbor to neighbor" and having the candidate show up in the states where this week's caucuses were held, Bradender said. They also did some advertising. "I also think the debates mattered," he said. "It isn't going to be just who runs the most negative ads who gets the nomination for president."
Christian conservative leaders — who endorsed Santorum in Texas earlier this year — certainly helped, Brabender acknowledged. But they alone didn't account for victories like Santorum's win in Missouri, where he won every single county and won by 30 points over Romney, Brabender said.
"You don't win a state that dramatically by just concentrating on one coalition," he said. Santorum also drew support from Tea Party voters and some mainstream Republicans. "The only way you can win by that margin is to put all those coalitions together," he said.
That doesn't mean Santorum isn't happy to have social conservatives fueling his recent rise: He's expected to receive an enthusiastic welcome at the American Conservative Union's annual Conservative Political Action Conference when he addresses the crowd on Friday.