Seventh in a series
Presidential candidate Rick Santorum consistently polls near the bottom of the Republican pack. But he appears undeterred in his bid for the White House. Santorum's work life in his 20s provides some insight into why he perseveres despite long odds.
The former senator from Pennsylvania is best known for his conservative social positions, especially his opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage. He's also known for expressing what he thinks very frankly.
Santorum is a Roman Catholic, but that didn't stop him from criticizing the country's only Catholic president. Santorum commented on John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech, in which Kennedy laid out his belief in the separation of church and state.
"I had an opportunity to read the speech, and I almost threw up," Santorum told a crowd in October at the College of Saint Mary Magdalen in Warner, N.H.
Santorum went on to explain: "In my opinion, it was the beginning of the secular movement of politicians to separate their faith from the public square, and he [Kennedy] threw faith under the bus in that speech."
Faith is a big part of Santorum's political life, but that wasn't always the case. In the late 1970s, he led the Pennsylvania State University College Republicans. Back then, ideology was not his primary motivator.
"I enjoyed politics. I was someone who had fun with it," Santorum tells NPR.
That changed after he began working in 1981 for then-Republican Pennsylvania state Sen. Doyle Corman. Steeped in the world of making state laws, Santorum says, he began to more closely examine his own views. Sometimes he reached different conclusions from the senator — on abortion rights, for example (Corman is pro-abortion rights).
"What I liked about him is he would challenge me," Corman told NPR from his retirement home in South Carolina. "Rather than me being the senator and I'm 100 percent always right, if he had a different opinion, he would raise it."
At the time, Ronald Reagan had just become president. Though not a fan at first, Santorum says he began to appreciate many of Reagan's views.
While working with Corman, Santorum says, he also learned valuable lessons from the senator's wife, Becky Corman.
"Of the two of them, she was the better politician, in the sense of a political operative," says Santorum. "I really learned grass-roots campaigning from her."
Among the lessons: Give campaign volunteers real responsibilities — not just busywork — and get as many people as possible to invest in a campaign.
"I don't care if it's a dollar — if they have that invested, that is something that they have given ... and they're going to work like the dog for it [the campaign]," says Becky Corman.
After five years with the Cormans, Santorum struck out on his own, working for a few years as a lawyer in private practice. Then in 1990, he challenged the seven-term Democratic incumbent in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District and won. Santorum was 32 years old at the time.
In 1994, he stunned Pennsylvania's political establishment again by winning the race for U.S. Senate. He won both of those races with bare-bones operations that faced long odds.
"He's like a general who's marching an army without a lot of supplies," says Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College.
In the battle to win the Iowa caucuses in January, Madonna says, Santorum hopes to once again stun the political establishment with his ground game and the campaign skills he learned from Becky Corman.
But in a field of candidates who tout their significant private-sector experience — think Herman Cain and Mitt Romney — Santorum has spent almost his entire professional life in politics.
"I actually think that's a good thing," Santorum says. "One of the things I've found is that people who have experience in politics generally make the best politicians."
We'll see if Iowa caucus-goers agree in January.